The writing is on the wall
In December of last year, I made a pilgrimage to the garden at Lancaster West Estate and ended up with a vision for a dance at Silchester. While we didn't quite manage a waltz during Art For Silchester there was a performance and musical element to our drawing and ceramic making with over 200 local residents taking part. A special atmosphere was conjured. We shared life experiences and humour over the soundtrack of our own studio musicians. All the amazing art work went on display at Estate Open Weekend and also toured down to the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith as part of a fundraising evening for Grenfell. Many thanks to Nahid Ashby and London Funders for supporting my residency which acted as an informal therapy for affected residents to mitigate recovery from trauma. And also to RBKC Arts for the funding of book making workshops in early 2019 that will produce 60 copies for residents. I have long been championing creativity down at Silchester and look forward to SPID Theatre Company joining us for more artistic happenings.
What of the garden? The garden in the shadow of Grenfell that I have been visiting for the past five years. This patch of humble green in the middle of Testerton and Barandon walkways has featured in two of my previous films, Vision of Paradise (2015) and The Forgotten Estate (2016). I continued my vigil here over the course of 2018 shooting a film which is in the final cut. The film is about Stewart Wallace and my spiritual connection to his garden in the aftermath of the fire that claimed the lives of 72 people. The garden was partially damaged and the soil contaminated. But life continues. The Strawberries Are For The Future will be released in 2019.
This week I went on a walk to All Saint's Notting Hill attempting to reconstruct a photo that was taken circa 1850's. Is this the architect and assistant posing in front of the church in a landscape of mud? They look at us and the uncertain future of urbanisation. The building works had ground to a halt. The church had run out of funds and the spire was never built. What we see in the contemporary photo is the restored building after extensive WW2 bomb damage. Buildings invariably tell a more dramatic story than a garden.
I recall how in 2015 the original architects of Grenfell tower met residents and listened to their experiences of living in the high rise: positive in terms of flat size and the views; although they registered the impact of the renovation taking place. I took photos of three of the architects around the estate and one posed by the new sculpture at the base of the building that was being wrapped in flammable Reynobond polyethylene (PE) cladding panels. I still have no consoling memory of these social decisions I made as an artist, in the humane intention to forge links between the past and the present that was on the brink of destruction.
But still I walk albeit with a limp of late (ankle injury healing). Maybe it is not the end destination that matters. En route to All Saint's, I walk past the Portobello Wall Public Art having completely forgotten about this commission. This is a 100 metre length drawing into paint by Anastasia Russa. It is a kaleidoscopic image of local folklore that also takes in the recent tragedy of Grenfell. It will be an impressive specatcle when completed; assuming more work will be done to colour in the graphic outlines. As you approach the wall from Goldborne Road, the first portrait you encounter is Piers Thompson. Most appropriately, Tim Burke can be found at the other end of the road, near the Westway.
Piers is a resident of Silchester who campaigned to save the estate when it was (still is!) threatened with redevelopment. I smile at how Piers wittily adapted one of the lines from the architects: "What do we want? Gradual change. When do we want it? In due course." Mr P is also a hipster DJ and hosts the Portobello radio show. A man who seemingly knows everyone and is forever making meaningful connections. Tim Burke, I regret to say, was prematurely taken from us this year. I have fond memories of his support for my first film, Floodlight (2010); it was screened at the pop up cinema that he set up under the Westway. We swapped Ballardian notes on the Westway and he paid for me to make a short film that involved a taxi ride across the elevated road.
In between Piers and Tim, there is an array of characters and situations, real and imagined, with perhaps too heavy a dose on historicism. But being a hat fetishist, I approved of all the flat caps and trilbys and straw hats. But is this relevant to our contemporary world? As if by creative calling, a man passed that moment and asked me if I knew who I was photographing. He introduced himself as Paul and invited me to look at the painting of Leslie Palmer which was sited at the another end of the wall. We trotted up. I only knew Leslie by name and deed; he is a founding figure of the Carnival. It was a pleasure to make the connection and have him talked about so affectionately by a friend.
Also included in the narrative is Khadija Saye. I never met her in the year I worked at Grenfell tower as artist in residence. She died at a point when her photography was on the brink of wider acclaim. Let us hope that one day a proper retrospective can be held to celebrate her talent in the local area rather than down at the Tate's of the world.
So pausing, perusing at the wall, I ask: what is this representation of past, present and future? Whose history? As an artist who often mines the deep resources of personal and collective history, this can be a thorny process. How do you represent and edit? It's well documented that North Ken has a complex and troubled history: deep social divisions amplified by a discredited local authority and a governing class that has recently imposed austerity cuts affecting those most in need or vulnerable. Even at the grass roots level, an organisation which was set up to manage 23 acres of land for the benefit of the community, has had a checkered history. Most recently, with its own corporate-lead redevelopment plans that were halted by fierce local criticism. Toby Laurent Belson and Niles Hailstones, artist and activists, have been leading the fight against the Westway Trust to be more inclusive and accountable. The Tutu Foundation is running an independent review into Institutional Racism covering it's practices and policies. This is part of the unfolding history and artists play a role in not only providing cohesion and well being (what our funders want), but the need, when required, to thrown down the gauntlet and challenge the status quo.
We wait to see how the Portobello Wall art panel unfolds. It could do with some explanatory sections; perhaps our local historian, Tom Vague, will be busy over the summer with guided walks. Will the community get involved, colour in and add their own experiences? Can it fully capture the rich radicalism of the area? Hopefully Anastasia is up to the challenge. And we want to see her tell the story (she has already started) of 13 members of a local monkey jazz band (yes, I said, monkey jazz band!) who escaped from their owner, with several holed up at Latimer Road station, pelting passers by with bananas. Nuts!
I have an uplifting update on that blog from last year. I talked about how I and my film/art was in a state of suspended tension. During the course of last year, it's been a privilege to be a small part of Grenfell United and specifically to support residents from the tower in any meaningful way in rebuilding their lives. This has involved supplying several with art work, photos and film footage of loved ones and the community that lived at Grenfell. And the art work made during the Grenfell Fun Day? It is now hanging in the community rooms used by Grenfell United and a copy had been presented to The Speaker, The Right Honourable John Bercow and is part of the parliamentary art collection. A special mention to Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky for organising the art presentation and for marshalling the volunteers who supported a day of campaigning by the survivors and bereaved family members.
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