The other month I finally shot an interview with brilliant artist Jessica Voorsanger in her studio at Norlington Road, Leyton.
The other month I finally shot an interview with brilliant artist Jessica Voorsanger in her studio at Norlington Road, Leyton.
Last Thursday to the opening of Iain Sinclair’s installation at Gallery 46 in Whitechapel – The House of the Last London. The double fronted Georgian terrace behind London Hospital converted into a gallery is in prime Sinclair territory, the ideal spot for a gathering of artworks and artefacts mapping the great London chronicler’s collaborations from the 1960’s onwards. Among those in the house are Andrew Kötting, Chris Petit, Susan Stenger, Brian Catling, and Effie Paleologou.
I’d delivered some reproduced pages from my journal when Iain Sinclair walked through Leytonstone for his book The Last London (the exhibition is timed to coincide with the book’s publication) with photos of Iain stapled in celephane wrappers. Iain gave me a walk through with the artworks lying on the floor waiting to be hung. The wall in the photo above was a partial recreation of exhibition Iain staged with sculptor Brian Caitling at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1973 – Albion Island Vortex. Chris Petit arrived to install his House of Memory in an attic room – we carried furniture from his family home up the narrow flights of stairs discussing the state of London.
I predict Room 7 – The Cave of Memory, will become an Iain Sinclair shrine over the course of the exhibition which runs till September 17th. People will sit on the floor beneath Brain Catling’s sketch map of the sacred geometery of London reading re-issued copies of Lud Heat, originally published by Iain Sinclair’s own Albion Village Press in 1975. We passed the site of the printers just off Balls Pond Road on the nightwalk for our London Overground film January last year, Iain lamenting that he no longer possessed any of the original editions.
If you want to have an understanding of the evolution of English psychogeography – or more accurately neo-psychogeography – you could do worse than pay a visit to The House of the Last London. There are missing links of course – the copies of the London Pyschogeographical Association newsletters that Iain picked up at Compendium books, Camden for example – but you probably knew all that stuff already. The Lud Heat map is almost a key artefact – the merging of earth mysteries, mythology, folklore woven into the built environment, the lingering sense that there are hidden forces surpressed beneath the pavement, choked by property development and loss of memory.
Iain’s 1960’s-1970’s Super 8 diary films spool round in one of the attic rooms with Sinclair’s voice collaged into a soundtrack. You look out of the window onto Whitechapel streets earmarked for demolition, as Iain remarked to me that day, ‘the perfect place for the House of the Last London’ as it too will soon be swept away and consigned to an archive of memories.
Screening with the brilliant Video Strolls has the added bonus of a chance for a wander round Birmingham. I’ve blown through a couple of times before on tour with Russell Brand but those occasions were restricted to backstage views of venues and a quick dash through the Bull Ring searching for gifts for the family.
The occasion this time was a screening of London Overground at the Flatpack Film Festival and despite my best intentions I arrive with only an hour or so to explore. Instead of searching out new sights/sites I want to pay homage to the Birmingham Surrealists and somehow connect them to Birmingham’s Edwardian arcades.
The crowds are out enjoying the sunshine pitching into New Street. There’s something about the architecture that reminds me of Downtown LA, the fading grandeur of former times. Could Ridley Scott save himself a few quid and shoot the next Blade Runner movie in the midlands, bounty hunters pursuing Replicants along the corridors of King Edward House.
I stand outside the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, one of the haunts of the Birmingham Surrealists. I know the Kardomah Cafe is nearby but can’t locate the exact location until Andy Howlett takes me back there after the screening to point out the ghost sign still visible above the entrance to Hawkes and Curtis menswear shop.
I move on to the Birmingham City Gallery and Museum to find the surrealists there. The entrance is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s bronze statue of Lucifer (1944-45). After touring the galleries I find a painting by Emmy Bridgwater Night Work is about to commence (1940-43). Bridgwater, born in Edgebaston in 1906, was a key member of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox and John Melville. It’s Melville’s Aston Villa that I spot next, painted in the year Villa won the cup, 1956.
Time is moving on as it has a habit of doing when you have somewhere to be and I advance to the venue of the screening, a beautiful art deco boozer behind the Alexandra Theatre. The screening is packed and the film seems to go down well in its first outing beyond London. But once again I depart Birmingham vowing to return for more thorough exploration.
The 491 Gallery now lies in a pile of rubble between Grove Green Road and the M11 Link Road. It’s been sad to walk past and see it come down day-by-day – from the wooden hoardings going up a couple of months ago, watching the roof beams carried out and placed on a trailer, to the final bricks being knocked down on Tuesday.
I did Life Drawing classes on a Monday night in that room that hangs from the edge of the building in this photo. I bought two hand-built bird boxes that hang in my garden for a fiver there as well. Where there is a pile of bricks below I went to an all day gig where people watched the bands slouched on bean bags and cushions. The 491 was a very chilled out place in my experience.
For a ‘post-link road’ Leytonstoner such as myself, the 491 Gallery was a link to the spirit of former times. A vestige of the period when Leytonstone had the largest population of artists in Europe although it dates from after the road it is a legacy of it. The building had been used as a storage facility for the building of the Link Road. Previous to that it had been a factory that built safes. The demolition guys carrying out the heavy roof beams said to me there was still an enormous safe inside that they had to get out somehow.
This kind of squatted social space links back to the London I knew when I first came to live here in 1989 and is slowly fading away. There are groups that still operate social spaces, sometimes in conjunction with the property owners using meanwhile leases, but they are necessarily temporary without time to grow roots into the community. The 491 Gallery was a real presence in the Leytonstone community and it’s very sad to see it go to be replaced with yet another uniform block of flats.
Rest in Peace 491 Gallery may your spirit live on.
If I hadn’t committed to doing a daily vlog then I probably would have ducked home out of the rain after my morning coffee. I sat in The Sunflower Café pondering on how my vlogs are a form of ‘Slow Vlogging’ – embracing and celebrating the familiar, local, the extraordinary lurking beneath the seemingly mundane. But how do you actual film a walking vlog in the driving rain.
I jumped on the Central Line to St. Paul’s and headed for the Highwalks of the City of London – covered walkways that in parts follow the line of the old Roman Wall. The Postern by the Museum of London is the best place to see how the remains of a Medieval Bastion were built into the wall, lining up with the remains of the Roman wall in Noble Street.
I followed the painted yellow line on the ground – a thread that leads into the Barbican – truly one of the wonders of London. Walking the raised walkways through the Barbican is best done in the middle of the night – but then I’ve only done that by accident when looking for a shortcut home when I lived just off Penton Mound. The soles of my trainers have been worn slippery smooth and I skated over the wet brick paving slaloming around the concrete pillars.
Soon I slid all the way inside the Barbican itself – the Brutalist mothership, a Le Corbusierian wet dream. Floating along the glass roofed corridors linking sections of the buildings, heavy brass doors hissing open ten yards before your arrival – it felt like being in a Space Station (well what I imagine it feels like from watching films) orbiting the City of London. The huge Conservatory with its towering palms and balconies dripping in tropical plants compound the feeling. It’s a glimpse of a future London after the collapse of civilization when nature has reclaimed the concrete wilderness – images garnered from the 1980’s TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.
My feet led me to The Curve Gallery currently housing a sculptural installation by Swiss Artist Roman Signer. A bright Ferrari red kayak is gently skimming over the bare wooden floor dragged by a cable attached to a motorized pulley running along a rail on the ceiling. The only other thing in the gallery are two screens showing the kayak moving in other spaces – being pulled from the back of a jeep along a country lane – and spinning around on a spit. The installation is called ‘Slow Movement’. I filmed the kayak from floor level moving in and out of frame – it was the perfect footage to accompany what I had been pondering that morning – of my daily videos as a kind of ‘slow vlog’. I’d honestly chosen to head for the Barbican so I could walk and film away from the rain – but here was a message inspiring me to stay ‘slow’.
Last Sunday took me back to Birmingham, for a screening in the Flatpack Festival of a short film I’d made of the walk I did to Twyford Abbey with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp. Nick joined me for the jaunt to the Midlands and I managed to persuade him to take a detour with me through the splendour of the Piccadilly Arcade.
The beautifully painted ceiling of the arcade is by Paul Maxfield and with the glimmering lights and tiled floor recalls the dream palaces that inspired Parisian poets and German social theorist Walter Benjamin who, when he described the Paris arcades as ‘a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise’, and that the arcades were ‘galleries leading into the city’s past’ could as easily have been writing about Birmingham’s Piccadilly Arcade as the Passage des Panoramas.
Ben Waddington later told me that the Arcade had been built as a silent cinema but had declined in the 1920’s and converted to a shopping arcade. Nick seemed unimpressed by the arcade, the video I attempted to shoot on my pocket camera (a Canon Powershot sx230 Hs) has a soundtrack of him impatiently drumming a rolled up copy of the TLS against his hip climaxing in an instruction to, “Hurry Up John”.
Nick seemed to enjoy Victoria Square much more than the arcade. We’d detoured around some of the side-streets leading away from New Street and remarked on how hilly this part of Birmingham City Centre feels. It’s a city that cries out to be explored.
After using the toilets in the Symphony Hall our explorations led us into the Museum and Art Gallery where there was a display of the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard, “The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found”. The delicate filigree pattern on the jewelry and sword mounts was hypnotic – at odds with the idea of a brutal and barbaric ‘Dark Ages’.
I was equally seduced by the work of the Birmingham Group of artists, particularly ‘Sigismonda drinking poison’ by Joseph Southall. The above painting of ‘tower block with old lady’ by Arthur Lockwood found in a room displaying architectural models of the city stayed with me throughout the day. Lockwood has documented the changing urban landscape of West Midlands with watercolour paintings, leading him to be described as “Birmingham’s very own Lowry”.
The screening in Digbeth was looming so there was little time to absorb the ambiences of the City Arcade of which Nick was even less forgiving. Curzon Street Station (opened in 1838) was another matter – dominating the landscape on the approach to New Street on the train from Euston and soon to be the Birmingham terminus of HS2. Perhaps the reopening of the station will breathe new life into the Eagle and Tun.
The sun broke through as we reached the Digbeth Branch Canal at the junction of the Typhoo Basin. We had half-an-hour before the screening in an old industrial building beside the towpath and Nick told me more about his interest in the Birmingham poet Roy Fisher whilst I talked of walking the River Rea and doing the Tolkien Trail.
We had been invigorated by our short stroll around Birmingham, it seems to offer so many possibilities for the urban rambler. We are already plotting a return.
Great description of Leytonstone in the 1980’s from City Racing – the life and times of an artist run gallery written by Matt Hale, John Burgess, Paul Noble, Keith Coventry, and Peter Owen, which I exchanged with Matt one night in The Heathcote for a copy of This Other London. It sets the scene for the infamous M11 Link Road protests that ran from the late 1980’s to 1994.
“It was the blighted, front and back gardened, Victorian houses that had become home and workplace to another large East End artist community. The DoT leased the properties they owned to various short-life housing organisations, one of which was ACME. ACME’s rents were super cheap. Houses became live/work spaces. Rooms were knocked together to make bigger studios. Leytonstone was like a weird suburb full of Sunday painters, but where every day was Sunday”
The ‘Remembering the M11′ event is tonight at The Wanstead Tap