Saturday, February 21, 2009

Let's Drift Again

Laura Oldfield Ford makes work about agitated urban space. The work is informed by walks or, in the psychogeographic tradition, drifts, but a drift is no ordinary walk, and it certainly isn’t an amble. It is the mindful, purposeful, watchful, vital movement of Man within the built environment, and a true psychogeogapher remains open to suggestion. The phenomena has it origins in a sort of political playfulness posited by Situationist originator Guy Debord to describe a process of gaining awareness of the predicament of the urban environment with a view to political activism. It didn’t quite come off as intended but nevertheless became an interesting construct or starting point used by a great many thinkers, artists and writers not least the current depoliticised coffee-table psychogeography of Peter Ackroyd (he never uses the term but is generally lumped in), and Iain Sinclair.

Laura has bravely, and freely, adopted the term and she describes her process as “subjectively mapping the city in its intensive state of movement and flux”, the explorations laid bare in her fanzine Savage Messiah (which as a platform title doesn’t work for me as in my mind it is inextricably linked with H.S. Ede's biography of Gaudier Brezska), currently on issue ten and the bedrock to her work. The zine is based on the down and dirty, black and white, xeroxed DIY post-punk aesthetic, with high-contrast grainy photos, urban drawing and inky type, owing a great deal to the snarling energies of punk and the people who fed off it. Each issue investigates a district, documenting observations of London as a place of disaffection. Remember the scene in Derek Jarman's Jubilee where the glamorous pretend punk is crucified on a lamp-post on a deserted street of burnt out cars while feral children dance round her wrapping her in barbed wire in a cruel imitation of a maypole dance? This is Laura's territory. London as a place of social unrest; London psychically damaged beyond repair.

For her new show London 2013 Drifting through the Ruins Laura has made over a hundred drawings of East London’s Olympic zone, that swathe of the lower Lea Valley currently being pulled to bits in preparation for the most expensive party attempted by UK Government, but the drawings imagine the space post-Olympic, a state of urban abandonment and failed optimism; no-go wastes overrun with rats and gangs. A place in trouble now that the natural histories are submerged and the lay of the land lost forever, sealed in a matrix of new transport systems and glass and steel.

Places vent energies that work through people, creating micro environments, and there are several micro worlds presented here: Angel lane to Balfron Tower, Altab Ali Park, Loot Asda/Burn Barratts, Rave Enforcer vs Pitchless and so on. Beautifully drawn in ball point pen on watercolour papers, they are fragments of human stories of the economic effect of this zone of upheaval, of estates, pubs, shopping streets, communal space, London foliage, filled with indistinct tracings and nervous energy, free marks and spurts of garish luminous colour. Some include people going about their daily business or swaggering gangs, some are quite devoid of human life but you know they were there, once. The implied trace of recent presence is key in these works as Laura considers each drawing a palimpsest - an old word for an eraseable tablet - so that the putting down and scraping off reveals the echo of earlier observation, perhaps half realised, the multi-layering coming together in the final work to reveal a layered truth and insight.

But the hang bothered me. Sadly all the works are hung together along one long wall of Hales Gallery in a huge composite block so that it impossible, other than by using the picture guide (15 drawings, 3 across, 5 down' etc) to tell where one piece ends and another begins. I like the power of the wall, but the individual works, which are sensitive and each comprising some 12-15 drawings, are lost, and I would have preferred to see them hung separately. For me the most successful of the drawings are the ones with space in them, where the fragment of place is allowed to hang in the air on the page, rather than crowded in by immutable energies, but there is room for both. These drawings exist in and out of time, being both informed by the present and the echoes of the near future, but they are not warnings of potential urban despair, of what might happen, in fact quite the opposite: the turmoil is presented as a fait accompli, and to borrow from Lud Heat " this air certain hungers were activated that have yet to be pacified; no turning back"...

Now, I should really at this point declare my interest when it comes to so-called psychogeogphical drifting, or London's hidden energies, because for nearly fifteen years my work was entrenched in the haunted London of the aforementioned Lud Heat, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and Hawkmoor. I made dramatic, pantomimic paintings of besuited skinheads set against backdrops of Tower Hamlets Cemetary or Limehouse Reach. I painted Spitalfields aflame, East London's spooky churches, and tormented rough trade. My supporters included the late great Dan Farson (who made Limehouse famous and is now scarcely remembered), Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who, in an essay for my show East End Paintings in 1994, was kind enough to write "there are few painters who have so well divined the true life of the city and, by an act of astonishing intuition, have been able to unite the past and present, mythology and reality, in artistic communion". But five years ago I decided I'd had it with the London thing: I wasn't operating entirely out of myself and I was dissatisfied that my work was informed by the fictions of others. My work is still very much about place but I now paint the landscape of my personal history, and I am a Shropshire Lad, not a London one, but if I'm still painting place through a filter of fiction, in much the same way a smashed mirror casts a shatter of fragments over the reflection of a familiar room, then at least they are my fictions and not someone else's.

So at first I wanted to turn away from this work, finding it at violent odds with my own London love affair, now dismally over, and my own understanding of what psychogeography has turned into, but I am left with a rankling that while Debord would baulk at my claiming that term for my own fog-bound Limehouse driftings (should I have been brave enough to do so), in Laura's political offensive he would almost certainly recognise his original intentions. Laura is right to adopt the phrase as her work has a rightful claim on its original meaning.

Laura Oldfield Ford
London 2013, Drifting through the Ruins
Hales Gallery, until 14th March

Hales Gallery

Savage Messiah