Alternative London: artistic visionaries dissect the city...
Tate Britain's Another London opened last month, showcasing 20th-century photographs of the city taken by foreigners, a nice tie-in with the arrival of the international spotlight on the capital for the Olympics.
London is one of the most cosmopolitan spots on Earth, and many of its most visionary representations have come from outsiders - even its famous literary sons Dickens and Shakespeare were émigrés of sorts. So too, are many (though not all) of those featured in our look at remarkable artistic responses, from the subversive to the iconic, to the UK capital...
James Barnor's 1967 image Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus, London is on show in Another London at Tate Britain. © James Barnor/ Magnum Photos
Patrick Keiller, Robinson in Ruins 2010 © Patrick Keiller
Unlike Berlin or New York, London was never the subject of a city symphony film - Keiller's 1994 pseudo-documentary London is probably the closest the city has come to such cinematic analysis. A nameless narrator recounts his travels about the city with the fictional Robinson, an ex-prisoner and landscape scholar. Notably, despite its all-inclusive name, the vision of the city presented is highly specific (even idiosyncratic), tailored to both Robinson (or is that Keiller's?) personal interest in suburban public spaces. The focus is honed by obsession with Rimbaud and Romantic 19th century writers like Walpole, and the political backdrop of the day - Robinson finds John Major's capital a cultural and community wasteland. Despite erring on the indulgent with longshots a-plenty, its ideas of what is good for a city are generally commendable and it's certainly a unique piece of work. Keiller's The Robinson Institute is on now at Tate Britain.
Sleep Walk Sleep Talk by Suki Chan, 2009. Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, in association with 198 Gallery and A Foundation, as part of 'Free to Air'. Supported by London Councils and Arts Council England
Space is a key concern in for this Chinese artist, so naturally conurbations and cities prove a rich vein of inspiration for her. Predominantly moving image installations, Chan's works aim to expand our understanding of environment, whether that be personal or collective.
2009's Sleep Walk Sleep Talk focuses on London, where Chan lives and works. Kicking off the Free to Air program (on freedom in contemporary societies, funded by London councils) the film examines the dominance of the cityscape over an individual's freedom. In a dual-screen installation, Chan slows the city down, so fast-paced commuter trains become rhythmic patterns. She uses footage filmed at night from the windows of a moving car; shots of claustrophobic, stark interiors and sinister traffic tunnels; anonymous portrait-like shots of people. Reworking the ambient metropolitan noise into an atmospheric soundtrack, it's a sometimes sinister, cinematic look at that city-dwelling conundrum: one is free to do so much, but lonely, alien and oppressive it is too.
Sam Selvon - The Lonely Londoners (1956)
It's a testimony to the scale of change that London underwent in the 20th century that within 30 years it could produce two books as different as Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners. Both might be considered among the great London novels and important zeitgeist books. Just as no study of colonial London should ignore Woolf (the city's patriarchal nature embodied in the chimes of Big Ben and the statues lining Whitehall), no study of postcolonial (and indeed postwar) London can ignore The Lonely Londoners.
Selvon's novel concerns a group of Windrush generation immigrants and their attempts to get by in the city, and is lauded for its groundbreaking ‘natural dialect' prose (‘so I does wonder about the boys, how all of we come up to the old Brit'n to make a living'), which paved the way for Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting among others. It's also beloved for its amiable comic presentation of the city's harsh realities. One episode follows an attempt to catch and eat a pigeon, another a disastrous speech at Speaker's Corner (traditionally the site in London that attracts and unites all its most disparate and extreme citizens).
Peter Ackroyd - Hawksmoor (1985) and London: The Biography (2000)
Ackroyd is best known for an epic London biography so full of digressions as to truly do away with any outdated notions of linear history. London: The Biography explores Ackroyd's view of the city as a palimpsest, on which new history is constantly written over old - a place where ghosts are consistently present (and relevant), but that vision is best explored in his 1985 novel Hawksmoor. The book is part fictional biopic of Nicolas Hawksmoor, the 18th-century architect of six London churches (in the book he's a full-on Satanist called Nicolas Dyer), and part historical whodunnit in which a 21st-century detective, elusively named Nicolas Hawksmoor, investigates a series of murders. His rational, modern mind (the book is both of and suspicious of the computer age) doesn't consider that the clue to the crimes lies in the past, though the murders conform to a pattern laid down centuries earlier by Dyer. London's past is unyielding, Ackroyd says, and by understanding it you can read the present; his London is full of uncannily familiar spirits.
Ackroyd is a remarkable mimic of 18th-century prose, deliciously wicked and very funny. Complaints that the contemporary sections of the novel are flat in comparison confirm he's an author more comfortable in the past than the present.
Also worth noting is that Hawksmoor himself is something of an icon for those prone to exploring the underside of London's past (Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore included). He's the shady understudy to the official ‘architect of London' Christopher Wren (who makes a lampooned appearance in Hawksmoor). Perhaps there's even some truth to Alan Moore's claim that Hawksmoor's churches purposely form the points of a pentangle...
Marketa Luskačová, 003, Spitalfields Catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, LondonLuskačová fell for London hard when she arrived from Prague in the mid-70s, fleeing its new Communist rule, under which her breakthrough series Pilgrims along with the rest of her work was eventually banned, religious exploits being suddenly deemed semi-legal. She was particularly drawn to markets such as Portobello and Spitalifields - the latter an area of London especially redolent with cultural change in its various incarnations as an epicentre for Bangladeshi immigrants, then artist/ creatives and now tourists and professionals. It's hard to believe that Luskačová's grainy images of Spitalfields Market were taken in London: they show an urban milieu identifiable with the pre-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia of her birth rather than Ted Heath's Britain, and show her fascination with humanity honed by early studies in anthropology. She also described her subjects in a recent interview as: ‘people with a way of life that I think might not last for much longer'. The Spitalfields series was included in the British Council-sponsored No Such Thing as Society exhibition.
No discussion of the urban condition would be complete without mention of the enfant terrible of modern psychogeography. Sometime flaneur and - by his own admission - city-stalker, Sinclair's writings and ramblings on the metropolis are different from Ackroyd's controlled prose in many ways, although just as evocative. Another non-Londoner by birth, Sinclair was a poet in the 1970s, apparently finding much in the Beat poets to inspire him and he has been known to enjoy the odd reference to magic and occultism. Some call him brilliant, some find his intellectual elitism a tad wearing and his advocacy of pre-gentrified Hackney blinkeredly romantic, but try 1997's Lights out for the Territory for a pre-Blair ‘n' boom vision of London that's as rich a contemporary tome on the city as you're likely to find. His Olympics-themed film (pictured) probably isn't quite so satisfying. For his ideas on so-called Olympic regeneration, read our 2011 interview with him.
Anarchic anti-capitalism rages at the heart of Laura Oldfield-Ford's drawings and writings, based on London's urban landscape. She's not a native - she was born in Halifax, but her romantic musings tinged with violent criticisms about this city and spaces at its edge have earned her a place in the gallery world.
This might seem strange - her work is marked by the almost sentimental, amateur aesthetic of DIY fan art (her roots are in punk zines) and her writings are a series of rough, poetic conjurings based on her journeys through the city, marked with aggression, for example:
‘You remember walking down here, back then, and this being the beginning of little pockets of viciousness...
You remember the shrieking, the blood in the street,...'
Her zine and blog Savage Messiah is subtitled ‘confronting the polite veneer of redevelopment spectacle' (Iain Sinclair, incidentally, is a fan with Oldfield-Ford a similarly strident hater of the Olympic building project).
The London in her work is site for a class war, and such barefaced invective certainly feels atypical now. 1960s angry young man sentiments live on in her work, potentially admirable, but she slightly tiresomely hailed the 2011 riots as a good thing in a recent panel discussion at the British Library. However, while the complex debate over urban regeneration, which often fails to improve the lives of the less well off as much as move them on, would certainly benefit from more considered argument, it's noteworthy to see some spirit of revolution, tied passionately to the city, so personally lived.
Woody Allen © MGM/Brian Hamill. Courtesy the BFI
Woody's back catalogue would do much to boost any tourist brochure; think the confection that was Paris in his 2011 time-travel comedy Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love speaks for itself, and the Venetian scenes in musical Everyone Says I Love You. In 2005 he fixed his lens on London with tennis thriller Match Point, making up a tally of four paeans to the city to date (including the terribly-received You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Managing to squeeze in a microcosm of English society (and a lot of Scarlett Johansson), unsurprisingly it was not heralded a hugely truthful rendering of the city, and the English dialogue was way off. In many ways an American Richard Curtis, his foreigner's vision of London may be cardboard cutout-deep, but as with the aforementioned love letters to various metropolis, there is an interest to seeing what a place looks like once it's moved to Hollywood and had its teeth whitened. And who wants to see real life in the cinema anyway?
Paul Graham, Woman at Bus Stop, Mill Hill, North London, November, 1982. © The artist and Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London
In photographing a grim crowd in Bloomsbury DHSS, Paul Graham gave us a visual record of the 1980s unemployment crisis in London and beyond. Funded by the Greater London Council, the series this shot is from, Beyond Caring, represented the sociopolitical struggles playing out at the heart of British society.
From Four Weddings to Bridget Jones, New Zealander Curtis' vision of a generic and very clean West London (and its inhabitants) defined a decade in British cinema. (Made In Chelsea is continuing his work in this area). As we surmised with Woody Allen, however paper-thin, there is something enjoyable about a known locale looking fabulous on celluloid.
Born in East Prussia, Dorothy Bohn moved to England in the 1940s. In 1981, she published Hampstead: London Hill Town, a labour of love to the leafy North London neighbourhood. Persistently photographing the daily life of her adopted city (among others around the world) has resulted in four more insider-esque photo tomes on the capital, evocative visual proof of just how fascinating it is. Watch a video about her here.
Rhys Griffiths, Rachel Potts, Shula Subramaniam
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