Wednesday 17 October 2012

Reflections reflected: Chris Orr at the Geological Society

Chris Orr RA. On the Road to Damascus
Heraclitus has entered into my life twice in the past week, both times relating to discussions of space, change, art and rivers. He states that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” He essentially believed that nature was in a state of constant flux, with things changing spontaneously without any external prompting. This is a very interesting place to start when talking about the artistic presentation of the built environment. Any landscape which has had repeated encounters with people will be undergoing constant change, both natural (through flooding/water, possible subsidence, vegetation growth etc) and unnatural (new buildings, changes in land use, pollution etc).

This is why H. Lefebvre in his discussion on space struck a chord;

The departure point for this […] is not to be found in geographical descriptions of natural space, but rather in the study of natural rhythms, and the modification of those rhythms and their instruction in space by means of human actions, especially work related ones (H. Lefebvre, The production of space (1991) p.117)

It is this modification of natural rhythm and human action that is so powerful in the London River works of Chris Orr. I was lucky enough to hear him lecture at the Geological Society at Burlington House on the topic of ‘The Long View – reflected’. As the notes say, ‘his drawings and prints explore the deep DNA of urban centres to understand their cycles of perpetual renewal and creative energy’. And using the 1647 ‘The Long View’ as inspiration he embarked on his recent large scale print.

In his talk he mentioned authors who had taken the notion of Thames as narrative and I would add in some cases, it becomes a character in the stories. He named Charles Dickens, specifically 'Our Mutual Friend', Lewis Carroll, Jerome K Jerome, Daniel Defoe in his 'A Journal of the Plague Year' and more latterly Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair. This begs the question of where are the women writing about the river? However the importance of landscape in books was recently featured in an exhibition at the British Library,  with the one book sticking in my mind specifically being Richard Jefferies’s post-apocalyptic view of London. The first chapter of After London (1885) describes the flooding of the Thames and its transformation into a toxic lake, where no one who values their life can enter.

This view of the river in the manufacturing age was consistent with the reality; the hidden, fractured nature of the water made it appear as if the city was ashamed of the toxic, stinking filth that it carried away - London's Dirty Secret. Indeed the overwhelming sense in photos is the gradations of gray which always gives London an air of mystery and other worldliness, in time as well as space. A further link with the Tate’s latest exhibition Another London and Orr’s talk, was his interest in seeing London through the eyes of foreign visitors. Arists who have portrayed the river include Monet, Whistler, Canaletto, Paul Gustave Doré and of course, the Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar. He provided a reflective portrait, the quintessential image of London, pre-fire. 

After supplying some basic facts which prove that I will never be into statistics (2nd longest river in the UK, it’s the cleanest river in the world that flows through a city), he outlined his interest in the city. Cities are chaotic and contradictory but in the collision of ideas we generate nervous inventiveness, commerce, religions and the arts. It’s important to realise that though there are great negatives about the Great Wen, the creativity is incredible. The dark side of London was described by William Blake in his Songs of Experience (1785),

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear 

But the chartered Thames was the reason for London’s existence. The fact that it was fordable and broad was helpful but from the equivalent of the Roman legion’s fag packets, it was a conduit for rubbish and things that needed to be disposed of. Bodies, chemicals, effluent, rubbish and even now you can see London’s rubbish being taken to landfill in large iron tub boats. The six metre tide allows material to be sucked out to sea, but also it provides a rhythmic mood to the river. Orr describes it as excitement at high tide and a glumness at low with smells changing with this sea/inland airflow. As it runs on the lunar clock, it's out of time with the day/night rhythm that we are used to. 

He went on to talk about the paradox of light which is refracted and colours being created by the water – paintings of the great fire show the fire light being reflected as a dramatic technique but it effectively doubles the danger. Further destructive tendencies of the Thames include the Blitz, where it signposted London to the bombers; accidents such as the Marchioness/Bow Bells collision and the Princess Alice tragedy in 1878 where most people died from the polluted water . Then there are the fifty suicides a year. With pestilence, plague, potential future flooding, the river has malevolent tendencies. 

Still, we mustn’t get depressed. The river has seen some great festive occasions, for instance this year we’ve had Jubilee Regattas and Olympic Rings. In literature the river is a constant source of excitement 

The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. From Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

Throughout the centuries the river has provided a backdrop to Londoners intent of having fun; riverside pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, rowing competitions, treasure hunts, pageants, frost fairs in the little ice age. Not to mention the recent joy of seeing wildlife return, cormorants for instance needing to eat their own weight in fish every day. Many of the events on the river provided a stamp of the City’s authority; even now we see the presence of warships, police boats, royalty and the ancient guilds such as Company of Watermen and previously, Dockers Union and the universally despised press gangs.

Recent reading that I was doing segued conveniently into his take on the ebb and flow of the spaces beside the river. When the Great Stink made civilised living by the river impossible, the well-to-do removed to places where the smell didn't affect them. The buildings along the river became home to a different sort of person and encouraged artists, and what he described as a 'Manhattan Syndrome' took place. Of course as the health of the river improved, mostly due to the seat of government being so affected by the smell, a gentrification process occurred, 'the re-employment of run down art studios and galleries often signal the beginning of the gentrifying process'. (Ben Highmore, 'Turning Spatial' in Art History, Jun 98 (21:2) p286) As he pointed out, living and working by the river is now very desirable, with the new London council building being right by Tower bridge.

Orr’s Thames

His work is centred around the Thames with which he has been familiar with all his life. His first involvement with the river was in 1961 when new buildings were being constructed all over the city and there was debate about ‘what was a nice building?’ Howard Robertson’s art deco Shell building on the Southbank was determinedly classical modern, not emulating the old styles found in other parts of London. Questions were being asked, as they are still, ‘what kind of environment are we building?’ This was part of the great dream or vision of progress where structure and access was key.

He briefly touched on some of his art, which he says demands to be read like a narrative. He mentions the squeeze box of zigzag shapes where barriers are everywhere, pushing images into shapes, corners and blind alleys. 'Topless in Battersea'  pushes ideas together: rich, poor, dogs mingling, essential connections are formed. As in the literature mentioned earlier, he stressed the strong structural themes, and the forceful 'Tide Runs Strong' here quotes Gaffer Hexham from 'Our Mutual Friend'. As shown in Land of my Father, his father came from and worked in Woolwich. The narrative is seen in the every day; he looks for the anarchic, unusual in the usual.  

The Long View - Reflected and the connections with Wenceslaus Hollar are many. As he was working on his response to Hollar from his eyrie in Tate Modern, he noticed the reflections from the glass buildings around him and it made him think and reflect. After a literal double take, he added an overlaying of what has gone before; change, fleeting and repeating. A point picked up not only by ancient philosophers but modernists alike. It is this mix of fanciful and real which I really enjoy and when talking about space, trying to maintain a grip on 'a separation between fantasy and reality is itself a fantasy' (Ben Highmore, as above, p284). Despite their immediate recognisable landmarks, you couldn't use his images as a guide. He is an artist, an intermediary/mediating between two worlds, enabling understanding. If you want a map, sometimes it still doesn't explain everything. Then there was a terrible pun on Shard/schadenfreude...a suggestion of the unfinished!

Road to Damascus concerns revelations in the city. These ideas and flow create epiphanies and changes. Hollar recorded that crucial moment before London changed. City of holy dreams appears when he was working from an unfinished Gherkin restaurant and he realised that the square mile was packed with 52 churches. Sitting side by side with financial institutions, an incompatible combination of dreams: forever fighting each other. The construction cranes also echo the spires.

He also touched upon his creative process where he said he enjoyed drawing outside in watercolour, with no photographs involved. He wasn't negative about photography, just that it was s singular activity and humans hcan employ many senses to collect memories and artifacts. For him the creation is a conscious effort and role of an artist is an 'around the campfire' moment; a narrator of tales to mediate and explain the world, to explaining what he loved and believed in. 

His enthusiasm about the Thames and London was positive and palpable but he is certainly not 'starry eyed' about the city. There are many issues facing us and he was quick to point out artists don't change the world. There are many contemporary cultural obstacles preventing deep thought. He likes to imagine his images as a snapshot, providing inspiration to make you to think further and harder. And I for one, applaud this wholeheartedly.

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