Illuminating the streets of London
On Feb. 15, 1894, a French anarchist named Martial Bourdin set out to detonate a pipe bomb in the Royal Observatory in London's Greenwich Park, the global meridian line that determined all time in the United Kingdom.
In effect, this act of terrorism was meant to symbolically stop time. In reality, Bourdin blew himself up accidentally, while walking up the slope leading to the observatory.
But in an installation currently on display at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, the incident is reported as if Bourdin was successful. Complete with documentary footage, newspaper clippings, images and ephemera that all convincingly turn fiction into fact, “Greenwich Degree Zero,” created by London-based artist Rod Dickinson in collaboration with novelist Tom McCarthy, imagines the effects of Bourdin's assault had it actually succeeded.
Dickinson says the genesis of the piece was Joseph Conrad's novel “Secret Agent,” which was written 10 years after the actual incident. In the book, Dickinson says, Conrad calls the observatory “the sacrosanct fetish of the time.”
“The building represents the most powerful symbol of the time,” Dickinson says. “So, obviously the parallels that we're interested in creating here are parallels to Sept. 11th where a building that has enormous symbolic value is the target of a terrorist attack, and there is obviously an incredible cultural and media fallout from that. What we're interested in is drawing connections between this event and the contemporary world.”
The installation is just one of several by seven London-based writers that do just that in the exhibit “The City & the City” currently on display at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown.
Organized by guest curator Justin Hopper, this first-of-its-kind gallery exhibit brings together works by writers that were conceived independently and created at widely different times, but that all refer to the creation of a city, not in literal terms, but in terms of concepts and experiences, both past and present.
“The show is about how do we conceive of a city in the 21st century, when we live in an entirely placeless world,” Hopper says. “Many of us live in a world in which our economic lives, and our personal lives, even our cultural lives are not so much based on the square footage beneath our feet as it is based on a conceptual idea of place. We build our cities more on the kinds of things represented in this show much more than through some sort of physical structure.”
For example, artist, archivist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein does this through the examination of an entire subculture that has existed in London for two centuries — the deeply private community of diamond and jewelry dealers.
Lichtenstein's family has worked in the London diamond trade for generations. Her installation “Sight Unseen” revolves around her latest book, “Diamond Street” (published by Hamish Hamilton, June 2012), which is about the historically Jewish diamond merchant's street Hatton Garden.
Its resident artisans and shopkeepers are known to hold many secrets of the trade. Lichtenstein, being connected to the area both personally and professionally as an artist archivist of London streets, explores its extraordinary history in the book, delving into ancient burial sites, diamond workshops, underground vaults and subterranean rivers.
In the gallery, a collection of found and fabricated objects related to her research into Hatton Garden comprise her installation. Here, century-old tools from the desks of jewelers are displayed in small, internally lit cases, accompanied by a ghostly soundtrack of an interview with a now-deceased diamond-cutter.
“Rachel was the first writer to have access to this world, because it's an extremely tight-knit community,” Hopper says. “Basically, she has taken the research she has done for the book and turned it into a physical installation.”
In this way, Lichtenstein reveals a notion of a city within a city through the presentation of layers upon layers of historical objects and oral histories.
Also mining the past to reveal a more conceptual version of a city is writer Sukhdev Sandhu whose “Night Haunts” installation references a London familiar to contemporary audiences primarily through Jack the Ripper lore.
Here, Sandhu, the chief film critic of the Daily Telegraph, presents a collection of thoroughly researched nonfiction accounts of 19th-century London at night through a dark and moody audio-visual presentation made interactive by designer Ian Budden. As the visitor takes a self-guided tour through what is essentially an e-book via computer mouse, loud street noises associated with the environs Sandhu references in his writing are broadcast over speakers, making for a haunting presentation all its own.
“This is an attempt to re-activate a lost genre of thinking about and writing about London in the 19th century, just as gas lighting was being discovered,” Sandhu says. “It created new kinds of shadows, and the city became navigatable at night for the first time. It created a new genre of urban explorer that described exploring the nighttime as if exploring the Congo or tropics as well.”
Hopper says that this piece, like all of those on display, essentially performs the same function. “Each of the pieces in this show function as a reinforcement of a different kind of memory, a different kind of structure of a city,” he says.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.