This City Still Lives
In a tribute to the power of destruction as a creative force, as we wrap up our own endeavours in the East Tower, Sophie Tolhurtst selects four pieces of art whose creators took the idea of abandonment and transformed it into something awe-inspiring.
Walking through London you pass buildings belonging to different eras, ideas and cultures side-by-side. But this remarkable street-level bricolage is only half the story - much of London’s history is held in fine layers below ground: if you were to dig only thirteen feet down, for example, you would find a layer of red ash – evidence of a city razed to the earth. This is not from the Great Fire of London, but from Roman Londinium’s burning in AD60 by Queen Boudicca. Ever since, London has repeatedly regenerated itself, no challenge too great. The city is constantly shifting, an enigmatic choreography of landscape, skyline and communities.
The city shows us: destruction is a finale that invites an encore. But what may we make of this second chance? Here are four artists’ approaches to constructing a future from a building’s destruction:
Refuse: Lumière Brothers, Démolition d’un Mur (1896)
It’s hard to imagine how it would feel to see time reversed for the first time. Consider Newton’s old adage: what goes up must come down. This short film, by film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, is a landmark moment for cinema. Recording the destruction of a wall, the film shows bricks tumbling to the ground before flying faultlessly back into place: flying, against the seeming inevitability of progress, of the succession of life and death.
If seeing is believing, the Lumière brothers offered exciting belief for new possibilities.
Remember: Rachel Whiteread, House (1993)
Lives lived and lost, a building plays witness to its inhabitants. It seems only right to commemorate a person’s sense of place in a city. House, created by Rachel Whiteread is a monument to a building scheduled for demolition. This building, long-fought-for, the last section of a bustling East London terrace, long-gone. Lining the condemned building with concrete, the original structure is dismantled, and its memory fossilized in this sculpture. Perhaps its precursor Ghost is more aptly named: this monument can only foreground a loss sorely felt.
Seen by some as a brutish reminder of space no longer accessible, it’s perhaps not surprising that the public rejected it. On the same day that Whiteread was awarded the 1993 Turner Prize, it was announced that House would be demolished.
Reuse: Glasgow School of Art / Grayson Perry, Art is Dead, Long Live Art (2016)
Sometimes, the damage is done. Fragments are all that remain, but they still form an accumulative mass: raw materials with which to make anew. Two years ago, when the Glasgow School of Art’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed and much-loved library burnt down, several artists were invited to create something new from the ruins. The regeneration here is twofold: new artworks have been made, and their auctioning will fund the restoration of the library. Grayson Perry’s urn most embodies this process. Made from the ashes themselves, it has a fitting title too - Art is Dead, Long Live Art.
Redefine: Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect (1975)
Art created by negation; Gordon Matta-Clark cuts holes in buildings, and in the process transforms our understanding of them. This practice, named ‘Anarchitecture’, originating in the problematic social landscape of 1970s New York, served to make the inherent dysfunction of the area visible. In the Paris neighborhood being cleared to build the Centre Georges Pompidou, Matta-Clark literally cuts through the walls of two adjacent condemned buildings to make Conical Intersect. He has rewritten our understanding of the physicality, boundaries, and use of architecture, but long-since demolished, we can only understand these works through the images and sketches that remain. The impression, however, is lasting. Spectacular yet shocking, these spaces don’t make for an easy first reading but offer insight into how the built environment might be understood.
Release: Roger Hiorns, Seizure (2008-2010, 2011-)
Valiant protestations are no match for the changing city. You may do better to surrender and let the natural course run. With Seizure, you step in from modest surroundings, suddenly finding yourself in a blue crystalline realm. Although once a modernist dream of its own, the SE1 estate where Seizure was created seems an implausible source of such a fantastical space. Artist Roger Hiorns started the process of transformation, pouring in 90,000 litres of copper sulphate solution into a bedsit, but he couldn’t be sure of the results. Out of his hands, what occurred was such an undoing of the existing place, testament to the creative power of a space set free. Despite the subsequent demolition of the block that housed it, this space, now transformed, survived. Painstakingly removed and housed in Yorkshire Sculpture Park since 2011, it exists as a beautiful alien in this wild landscape. No longer constrained by a building, it lives on. This creation may, like the ever-changing city, outlast us.
As these artists show, there are many ways to create from destruction - all of which may help acknowledge and understand past histories and possible futures of a place. In response to White Noise’s commissions to ‘celebrate, mourn, or reinterpret’ the BBC’s East Tower, Alan Warburton constructed a CGI rendering of the building, preserving it in digital space. But the story does not end here: this downloadable ‘ghost’ is no longer tied to use in the real world, and so is open to multiple lives and multiple deaths, by multiple artists – an apt afterlife for a building that made so many narratives of its own.
Share this article