Fire! Fire! Fire!
I've wanted to write about the past 6 months in my life, but realise I'm still not able to formulate coherent and dispassionate words. Therefore I'm going to attempt a visual and poetic experiment with parallel time lines. I sense this is a turning point where life, performance and art all co-exist and move forward as one.
Time line 1 – Grenfell Tower
I cannot believe the news that Grenfell tower is on fire. I immediately cycle down assuming everyone was out. All bystanders shocked, crying. I had made friends and art here in this building burning before my very eyes.
A resident tells me how the wind blows and resonates through the exposed windows. How it is like hearing a voice.
I am haunted by my last conversations with victims. Medhi, 8 years old, telling me about the drawing he had just completed: “I push the imagination button”. Denis Murphy: “When are you going to put that art work up?”
Then the world comes calling. Could I appear on TV or supply this photo! We want to recreate scenes from Grenfell and do the adjacent towers have the same layout? Are you the architect of the Tower?
The police visit me 4 times. They make copies of all my photos and films during my residency on the estate. I was commissioned to make a short positive film about the regeneration of Grenfell tower. Instead I listened to residents life stories and made The Forgotten Estate. I have withdraw this film until the community conjure it forth.
The art work commissioned for Grenfell tower was never hung up by the TMO. It has survived the fire. What will become of it?
On the Silent March for Grenfell, I meet and hug survivors. We walk the streets of North Kensington. A wave of compassion. I sketch en route.
I return back to the estate to a location that I have invested with a mythic and poetic quality. If you excavated the ground here you might discover the remains of Leo The Last. It is the community garden between Testerton and Barandon Walkways. It loomed large in the film I made for the V&A Museum, Vision of Paradise. Here I met the gardener Stewart Wallace. He was a guide who navigated me through the housing states of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Now his sculptural garden is contaminated by cladding. Steward had a stroke recently. But he is now back at work in his garden. This garden will be subject of my third film about Lancaster West Estate.
Time line 2 – Family, friends and personal well being
I had recently applied for my dad’s WW2 records. I discover he was entitled to a British war medal, but within the archive documents there was a shocking and sad story. It was something my patriotic Dad could never speak about. I was gobsmacked. Poland truly has a tragic history! I have started making drawings about this and filming at Wormwood Scrubs dressed in my old 1940s suit. I don't want to cause pain to the family, but this is very much about how the diaspora shaped my identity.
Mum has developed severe spinal problems. From complete independence to requiring intensive support in a matter of weeks. Hospital appointments. Disjointed hours. She becomes suicidal. The life of a carer beckons. Readjusting time and space.
I visit Jo Poole at Wellington Hospital and tell her about the Melodramatic Elephant. Our lovely Dress Doctor from Silchester Estate cannot speak or communicate but I wish she could advise me about my recent dress code and how we might use fabrics in the Melodramatic Elephant project. I cannot speak to her about Grenfell. I sing her a variation of the Beatles song – Hey Jo!
I meet up with an old friend who is now working for the NHS and providing mental health services for the victims Of Grenfell. He asks me how has the fire affected me? I think my confidence has been knocked as I bottle up feelings. The only way I have to communicate is through my art and this inward turn makes it more difficult. Most people don’t notice, thankfully.
Silchester Estate has asked me to become an artist in residence from Dec 2017- June 2018. I am honoured to be working with residents as part of their recovery after Grenfell. It will probably do me a power of good.
Time line 3 – The Melodramatic Elephant
I can barely focus on a new project called The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. I had been developing this for the past 5 years and now it has Arts Council Funding.
There was an incredibly poignant story to tell here about a melodramatic actress once associated with the Coronet theatre. While developing the core ideas, little did I realise the significance that fire and destruction would have in my own life.
The original Elephant and Castle Theatre burnt down in 1878 and Marie Henderson, the actress and manageress of the theatre, was reported as having gone made after losing all her costumes in the fire.
I sit alone in the Coronet and sketch. The manager talks about a ghostly presence that makes her hair stand on end. I don’t feel this. I just absorb the lonely and soon to be demolished space.
A newly composed score by my Godson DJ Lysergide has an emotional impact on me. It is the Bedlam Dance scene aka Marie Henderson’s tune. The opening chords has the crackle of flames. This haunts me for months. I hum it in my sleep.
For the poster art work, I set fire to clothes. I nearly burn myself
I attend an emotional Lowkey Concert in tribute to Grenfell at the Coronet.
Each time I hear the lines from the play, Fire! Fire! Fire! or watch the actors rehearse a complicated fire scene, with ladders and water buckets, my mind drifts off.
Intense collaboration takes me out of myself.
I found a great friend in John Whelan, theatre director. We laugh uncontrollably about the fetishism in our life. And he leads a lovely group of actors, the People’s Company. They devote months to bringing our visionary ideas to life. Namely, a building psychically linked to an actress. Together we found new ways of combining art and performance. And it is a fitting end for the 147 year old Coronet.
THE MELODRAMATIC ELEPHANT IN THE HAUNTED CASTLE - ART EXHIBITION
9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery
155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS.
Opening hours: Saturday and Sunday 12.00-17.0O Monday to Friday 15.00-19.00
Atmos (Marie Henderson theme)
From the Bedlam dance scene in The Melodramatic Elephant stage play
Composed by DJ Lysergide
Photo by Irena Hlinkova
This is an arts project about the history of the Coronet Theatre from 1872-2017.
The ghostly presence of a Victorian actress, Marie Henderson, will be our guiding muse.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle will be both a performance piece and an exhibition.
The play will be staged at the Coronet on the 7 November 2017.
The exhibition will take place at Artworks Gallery from 11-23 November 2017
Our project is a collaboration between a visual artist, theatre director, actors and residents of Southwark.
The work will be made available to future audiences by being deposited at Southwark Archives.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle is the culmination of several years of research into the history of the Coronet. It has a deep-focus on the actress, Marie Henderson, who has hitherto been consigned to the margins of academia. Our challenge is to creatively bring her to life: the pleasures and pains, the life-pangs of a Victorian actress; one who transfixed her audiences with performances that put the oomph of drama into "melos." She will be ghost skating through our artistic timeline, materialising at pivotal moments in the history of the Coronet. This might include the WW2 Blitz and a coda section when Marie trips the light fantastic with raving clubbers. She will transport us from the age of corsets and crinoline to silicon implants, from Bedlam to Brexit and beyond.
I will be using drawings as a medium to explore ideas and emotions, akin to a visual storyboard. The aim is to produce a narrative body of expressionistic imagery that responds to the architectural spaces of the Coronet and poignantly documents its final heart beat. Because our project is fundamentally sociable and public, there is the challenge of inspiring others to participate in the process of making and thinking. I look forward to sketching out the memories and experiences of people who once visited the Coronet as a cinema and those who still club today and sent into a trance with the musical beat. The icing on the cake would be discovering a senior resident, one who is over 100 years of age, who has a story to tell about the Coronet when it was a theatre.
Collaborating with John Whelan and the People's Theatre Company is top of my creative agenda. John has worked on history-based community arts projects in Southwark, but probably none on this scale and ambition. The durational nature of this project will allow John and the actors to become more involved in the development of a poetic play about the history of the Coronet and even get to source their own period clothing in more nuanced detail.
John and I will be exploring ideas and themes of mutual interest. For example, the origins of theatre and how this fused with music to create the melodramatic play and its link to cinematic forms of expression; my educational background was in film studies. We want to show how performance and melodrama are still relevant in contemporary society.
Double bill film poster for The Crimes of Stephen Hawke and the House of Mortal Sin
Melodrama meets horror, Tod Slaughter slices Pete Walker, 1930s resonates with 1970s
Oil pastel, 40x64 inches, 2013
Sketching the spirits that inhabit a staircase at the Coronet, 2017
Shop till the zombie drops
Cultural memories of the railway arches and the shopping centre at the Elephant and Castle seem ripe for melodrama and horror.
Faith, Hope and Charity
The life of Marie Henderson and the melodramatic play she starred in called Faith, Hope and Charity which introduced ghostly special effects on to the Victorian stage. The play is a domestic drama, with three murders, one suicide, two conflagrations, four robberies, one virtuous lawyer, 23 angels, and a ghost.
Singing and sketching in the rain
At the Walworth street festival on 22 July 2017, children sketch images for a scale model of the Coronet and adults talk about their memories of going to the venue when it was an ABC cinema.
History and legacy of Melodrama
Professor Jim Davis and Dr Janice Norwood provide a fascinating overview of melodrama's rich diversity and defining characteristics. We discover that melodrama was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th century. Although it was often dismissed as a cultural product, there is a growing awareness of its importance and how it influenced both film and TV.
Melodrama Workshop - Introduction
We had great fun with it, as it allowed our imaginations to run riot. The only rule we followed was that each beat of the scene had to heighten dramatic tension - preferably through the means of some jaw-dropping revelation.
Carolyn Cronin from the People's Company - Masks!
I realised how masks conceal the wearer: you’d expect to see their eyes and mouths behind them, but you can’t – the mask itself is the focus.
Interview with Sam Porter, manager at the Coronet
I’ve walked around this building on my own, at night, in pitch black, with just the little fire lights on and not felt uncomfortable at all. Apart from one space.
Culture and Capital at the Elephant and Castle
What makes the E&C Theatre important was that melodrama was established and maintained here when other theatres either adapted to contemporary dramatic fashions or succumbed to the cinema; it even achieved a brilliant burst of fame in 1927.