I approach my work with a manifesto – to capture the sense of urgency I feel about our current climate, an urgency that I feel is largely absent in contemporary art. My sculptural series ‘Structure of Collapse’ draws on a number of different issues including architecture, social geography, technology and archaeology. I have synthesized a number of different modes of viewing the city into one unified body, crystallizing something that seems apparent to me about the time we live in.
When the work was first conceived I didn’t favour any one particular aspect and still don’t, for me, these strands of investigation fuse as one cohesive whole. Whilst exhibiting the work at the Arts Depot in Finchley I had the opportunity to talk with viewers and gain an insight into their reception of my works concepts, in response to these discussions I have decided to tease apart some stands of investigation which my work explores.
The prevailing reading of the work is centred on the current political climate, the work leans towards communicating something about the British landscape, a landscape that is becoming blighted and as time passes this blight is becoming more and more ominous. Over the past few years ‘Structure of Collapse’ has become emblematic of an issue that lies at the heart of British politics; that is the slow and grinding decline of the social welfare system. For those of you who are unaware; the architectural movement which informs my structural bodies, Brutalism, is a style of architecture that lasted from the 1950’s to the mid 70’s.
After the second world war a national architectural program to rebuild Britain began and did so with the constraint of low budgets and a high ambition to create cities that were spacious, efficient, harmonious and optimistic. A future was envisioned to provide every class of people with affordable but dynamic homes, built in concrete, intended to last. It seems hard to imagine but there was a time when Britain appeared to aspire towards an almost collectivist ideal. Clearly this didn’t last and through my eyes, the end of Post-war idealism can be read in our changing cityscapes. Birmingham Central Library, Tricon Centre of Porthmouth and Southside Halls of Residence, all signs of social progressivism, all have been demolished and replaced with architecture funded by big business averse to civic programs. Trellick Tower, Robin Hood Gardens and Derwent Tower, all monumental structures of communal altruism have either been laid waste or through the ‘right to buy’ schemes of the 70’s, become un-affordable to the very people they were once intended for.
The changes in government policies towards housing have subverted these spaces form essential shelter to systems which exacerbate social struggle. The British landscape is one of soaring house prices, stagnating wages, welfare cuts, dwindling pensions, privatisation of social services and food banks, as social services are disabused so too are the edifices that were made as a proclamation of compassion. This bleak outlook is writ large in my work and is the salient message read by viewers. In my opinion these lasting structures of the British landscape are impregnated with a heroic spirit that speaks of working class defiance and it is this spirit that attracts me to Brutalist architecture, in fact the ideals of modernism were the very reason I became interested in art in the first place.
Part of the Modernist ideology was contingent on the ‘machine aesthetic’, it is integral to the appearance of Brutalist forms, it informs the structures of these behemoths – value and beauty was found in the functionality of industrialised materials and processes. It is here I want to consider the second strand of investigation in ‘Structure of Collapse’, a component of my work which may have been overlooked. For me the idea of the machine is inescapable when approaching modernism and for me the machine or more precisely technology, is problematic. If the architecture of the 50-70’s was built to incorporate the ideology of the machine it was done so in a distinctly industrial-technological age, one that could not and did not account for the subsequent digital-technological age.
With this in mind I have drawn on the ideas of French philosopher Paul Virilo who views the city as a technology in and of itself; a transmitter and receiver of information. Cities are laid bare, vulnerable to the aerial bombardment of the media which is rained down from orbiting satellites. Over the years of making this sculptural series I have collated media headlines of countless disasters, atrocities, catastrophes and tragedies. The constant news cycle of war, political corruption, terrorism and ecological disasters have been painted in the surfaces, archived as scar tissue on forms still standing resolutely.
Virilio is a fascinating thinker, his ideas should be known by a much wider audience as they are so prescient in today’s climate. Amongst his many concepts is the idea of the city dispersing itself through technological devices, becoming smaller, lighter, mobilized and transmittable and consequently internalised by the individual. The fear, panic, suspicion and hatred evoked by the constant media stream is now an intrinsic feature of our sense of self, our perceptions of our urban environments and our perceptions of other inhabitants. The city as a technology operates by creating a zeitgeist antithetical to the optimism of the modernists, one that permits the aggressive neoliberalism responsible for the collapse of social welfare programs and ever widening cultural divides. The Modernists had a faith in technology which ultimately morphed into something beyond their gasp to harness for good.
Central to my exhibition is the sculptural keystone of my sentiments towards our progress as a civilization. The biggest and most prominent form has been created to mirror the constellation of Pisces; the final thread of investigation I wish to discuss in this text. There has been much speculation of ancient architectural structures and the purpose and functions for which they were built. By representing constellations in architecture, ancient civilisations may have used their creations to demarcate time, it’s an early instance of the urban-scape functioning as technology which reinforces my links to Virilio’s concepts. Pisces as an astrological age is defined by the rise of organised religions, the ensuing crusades, persecution, the rise of technology both industrial and digital, the devastating warfare of the twentieth century and the advent of twenty first century global terrorism. The very things that are rained down back on us in a cyclical torrent of text, image and sound.
I find something in the idea of the ancients’ archaeoastromonical customs to be almost fatalistic in nature, in one sense it is an acknowledgment of the impermanence of civilization, an outcry for remembrance as time passes. These structures of the past have outlasted their civilisations and the intangible creations they were responsible for; languages, theories, traditions, beliefs and ideologies are forgotten and subjected to speculation for time to come. ‘Structure of Collapse’ creates a future in which the creations of the modernists have outlasted the very reasons they were first constructed. In the not too distant future it’s not hard to imagine people looking back at the brutal architectural forms with the same speculation and conjecture as people have for ancient ruins and it is a future that I fear is approaching all too soon.
Of course there are many ways to interpret art, as time continues work can appropriate new meanings. The Grenfell Tower incident came up a lot in conversation throughout the exhibition and although the work was conceived before the event I can’t help but see the parallels in it too. I could go on writing about issues relating to my practice, especially as the work in so densely layered with meaning and significance but I will leave it here for now and welcome anyone to offer their own opinions
Photos by Joseph Goddard. Film by Jill Stewart