SINCLAIR, BICKNELL, LOST AND FOUND IN WHITECHAPEL
David Hackbridge Johnson
Private Printing MMXVII
SINCLAIR, BICKNELL, LOST AND FOUND IN WHITECHAPEL
By David Hackbridge Johnson
Insufficient attention or too much distracted lurking may have been the cause for a prolonged failure to locate Gallery 46. Yet an art space so curiously hidden,
(where searchers must hesitate up and down Ashfield Street – no obvious signage for a gallery, rows of Georgian houses perilously wedged between grey blocks of razor wired anonymity, where no thrown up awning of Perspex illuminates Art Biz conjugations with dubious branding architects),
seems to invite furtiveness – is it here? No. Here? No –
until the toing and froing narrows to a mere shuffle at the doorstep, a strange jig that foots its own insecurity – and then you knock in half hope of entry.
And luckily, after warm welcomes, a treasure trove awaits; two of the fine Georgians given over to an art space, whose rooms have in recent months held some extraordinary archives – most particularly those of Iain Sinclair and Renchi Bicknell.
As it happened I nearly missed the show; the arrival of the artists to de-hang their work was imminent. So perplexed had I been on my perambulation of Whitechapel that I became quite disorientated; my quest to find old haunts such as St. Boniface and the East London Synagogue had been successful but then I became mesmerised by the Legoland behemoth of the new Royal London Hospital, only to find I was but a stone’s throw from the gallery.
Withal, I did manage to see the artwork before it became bubble wrapped and boxed.
New Royal London Hospital
Anonymous Bosch’s pin hole camera record of a Sinclair journey– this excited me; my friend, Paul Allen, a wonderful photographer himself, first captured my interest in this medium with his experiments in pin hole camera work over 35 years ago.
Part of the radical geographer’s work seems to (does it?) hinge on the half-buried past, the memories of forgotten alcoves or pathways, the under-map of our present day, yet also there might be a more urgent concern, less to do with lost visions and cultural nostalgia, more to do with a frantic tracing of the present in its moment by moment erasure.
No better is this erasure hinted at than in the artefacts relating to the river journey undertaken by Sinclair and Andrew Kötting during which a fibreglass swan pedalo is discovered and becomes the means of conveyance along the rivers of the South East, the journey commemorated in Bosch’s photographs; shots taken with a matchbox camera (also displayed) and then blown up into dizzying, misty perspectives. The weirdness of these blurry images is instant nostalgia round the edges, also quirky; the chance happening upon the swan contraption leading, I suggest, to high spirits. One imagines along the way foil wrapped sandwiches crumbling in sudden gusts, thermos flask toasts to wheeling birds, dithyrambs on habitat encroachment, instamatic poems on desolate tracts of distant scrubland, more beverages (something stronger?) – a riverine tea party of delirious mad hatters, their nobly moulded cobbe proudly riding the current; undoubtedly the whole effort as unusually compelling as the walk in the footsteps of John Clare featured in Kötting’s film By Our Selves – and yet like that journey a vital re-treading of old quests whose recall is now fragmented, lost in a junking of the past, diced by the ‘Cutting Edge’, post Blakeian visions replaced by ‘Vision’, borderlands succumbing to board rooms.
For all these attempted recreations or re-navigations come up against the insurmountable present, their points of erasure or disjuncture: the straw bear that accompanies the Clare walk (perhaps a manifestation of the poet’s bewilderment) stumbling amid bemused locals onto new builds that bisect ancient woods and pathways, the fibreglass swan dragged overland as rivers dwindle, are drained, are built over.
And finally the chain rope stretching from bank to bank, the post-Olympic helicopters on aerial prowl, the threat assessment teams in Hi Vis, the river as a no-go area other than for official parties and post-games legacy carpetbaggers. Journey’s end in hollow stadia and freshly, brutally sculptured walkways leading – where? Another vision of stakeholder inclusion? That excludes fibreglass swans? The journey charts its own demise, and these wonderful pin holes of Anonymous Bosch are the remains.
Ashfield Road, Gallery 46 towards the end of the street on the left
Part of Sinclair’s recent trajectory as a writer explores the notion of the city of disappearances. Disappearance might be expected as new replaces old but Sinclair sees the galloping erasure caused by many recent grand schemes as so definitive and final as to brook no remnant.
His writing on the Olympics (again) springs to mind in this context; work which caused his local library to ban him from delivering an advertised lecture. This particular Sinclairian achievement speaks of a radical geography that won’t wait for cosy reflections and pie charts; in challenging the raving and obligatory optimism of the Olympic message, Sinclair put himself beyond the pale of Leisure Service functionaries and pre-pumped olympio-librarians eager to dump Dewey Decimal for interactive hub design.
The names of gold medallists might be expected to fade into the annals of their exertions but what can be recalled of entire stretches of the River Lea now subsumed by such attractions as the ArcelorMittal Orbit; that promise of 4 by 4 relay adrenaline nostalgia? I wonder if Sinclair shares with me the irony I feel when I read of ‘Lea River Park: A New Landscape for London’, as if it was only discovered as a landscape after its obliteration. Well, the survival of the Three Mills could be viewed as a blessing but why the rigid gouging celebrated in so many plastic walkways? the Velcro-sculpted remouldings of utterly lost river meanders – aeons of quiet sediment dredged and bulldozed in a matter of weeks? why these puny homages to the discredited Dome – (oh look! there it is!).
And is the Permanent Poetry display a redeemer of this landscape in any way? Will the aerobic endeavours of 2012 have their just Pindarics? Sinclair doesn’t make the cut, although Tennyson squeezes in. And the stadiums (all of which had iconic status guaranteed at the blueprint stage) echo ever more faintly with two lactic acid drenched weeks of straining musculature and frenzied flag waving, and must now support themselves by means of sparsely attended athletics meets and corralled school children on day trips. As I’m sure Sinclair has said this is regeneration at the cost of, not the benefit of what existed before. In Hackney, That Red-Rose Empire, Sinclair laments the uprooting of allotments to make way for the Olympic temples; the ghost of Richard Jefferies came to my mind at once, allotments being both ‘excellent and noble’. Their cultivation, Jefferies goes on, ‘cannot be too widely followed or too much extolled’. Any amount of extolling makes no difference when the diggers move in. Velodromes for vegetables, podiums for potatoes.
I think it is the ‘given’ that all must be swept away without question that alarms Sinclair; all dissent an offense to the positive thinking mantra gurus, even a quiet query seen as somehow betraying the Good-for-Britain three line whip, somehow undermining the medal tally that all this investment must justify, so that all and only all can pump their fists as a nation united when gold is won. Somewhere on the River Lea, snared in a thicket of oblivious selfie-sticks, a worse-for-wear fibreglass swan rams its beak persistently against chains; the clanging of its effort a silver voice.
Kept in or out
Maps, photographs, posters, sketches – there are many threads to the Sinclair archive. Also books – I came away with two: The Last London and an excellent collection of poems The Firewall.
Sinclair has claimed that The Last London will really be his last look at the city that he has lived in for more than forty years. The book has some tremendous set pieces, some previously published as such: on the Boris Bikes (now Sadiq Cycles) and swimming in the high rise pool of the Shard. The Olympics still feature – an itch that Sinclair cannot resist scratching.
Heroic walks abound, mock heroics of motley character. Kötting is often present as Lord of the Madcap but also drummers, sound dredgers, an Edith Swan Neck impersonator – walks that re-enact history with pin hole vision, lines of force retraced in the hope that their ever fainter marks might survive in the triangulation of old churches, buried kings and locked ossuaries. Sinclair’s walk to Barking where disorientation beckons seems to bring him to the limit of endurance, the walk to Tilbury likewise. All these walks are adorned with a poetic ‘wildfire’ (Alan Moore’s word), a diagnostic probe of words that delves into brick dust, memory, loss; roots around in rubbish and comes up with gold, both real and fool’s.
Vignettes of friendship appear often, a common ploy with Sinclair; he feeds on the shared footfalls of long journeys. The walk to Croydon with poet and translator Stephen Watts leads via a series of Italian creameries to West Croydon in search of Watt’s grandparents; a coffee sustained pilgrimage that slips within my own borders and recalled for me my somewhat desultory, jejune rambles in the shadow of Taberner House.
Always displacement is near, whether it be the removal of Margaret Rope’s stained glass windows from the church of St. Augustine, Haggerston, the social housing cleansing policies of aspiration junkies in local planning (the last hangers on in doomed flats banished to the hinterlands of Essex), the threatened seizure of homes to make way for the deep coring machines that must gouge the earth for HS2 like a mechanised Pluto ravenous for Persephone, or more insidious forms of displacement like the mental collapse of Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz, feeling that his true life had been displaced and that he can only achieve birth at the point of death. The ultimate displacement is of body parts; the journey to retrace the steps of doomed King Harold as he force marches his army from Stamford Bridge to Hastings. Legends of his burial and the dispersal of his body parts fascinate Sinclair and his fellow travellers; the journey becoming a quest for England’s Osiris, the displaced funeral rites of the Anglo-Saxon world.
Yet the whole effect of the book is not as gloomy as it might have been; Sinclair is always seeking out allies, or not even seeking but happening upon them and seeing where they go. From curious tramps to activists, poets to book runners; even the Vegetable Buddha, a man beached on a bench in Haggerston Park, becomes an ally, or at least a means by which Sinclair can meditate on an imagined field of view. It is these interactions that make the book oddly hopeful; that despite the pitiless encroachment of those whose hollowed out culture leaves them utterly amnesiac to what they wreck, there might just be enough fellow walkers and mappers to keep hold of the thread.
Ancient ley lines connecting former mental hospitals, bridges and walkways, ribbons of Hindu mantras that hold localities in a cat’s cradle of perilous perspective, glassy vestiges of Blakeian figures – snouty, peering through raptorine, glaucous eyes – topologies where Victoria Park becomes a blue whale, where the M25 becomes a reptilian slither through fields, where star maps hang luminously above ancient promontories, as avatars of Krishna hover and give blessing – just some of the astonishing array of layered reference to be found in the work of Renchi Bicknell on show at Gallery 46.
I was most fortunate to meet the artist – he was packing up – and was thereby able to discover from him how these layers interact. As I see it, the paintings are, in a sense, memories of journeys, but of many journeys overlapping in different timescales: the slow shaping journeys of hills and rivers, the changing landscapes of man’s journey, the procession of constellations through equinoctial time, and look! – there is Iain Sinclair entering a gateway at the start of another patient exploration of lost avenues and abolished edgelands sucked into Total London. There is a delight in finding these maps that jostle for time’s attention, a playfulness that nevertheless doesn’t distract from what I take to be Bicknell’s central vision of connectedness. This vision can be gleaned from two beautifully produced pamphlets: Relations and A Pilgrim’s Progress. The centrality of Blake becomes clear not only in Bicknell’s combination of image and text but also in a cosmic vision that draws on universals from Neo-Platonism. Linkages of kinship, landscape, memory and beauty.
The threat of the severing of such linkages forms an underlying tension to be perceived in the sheer vertiginous detail present in Bicknell’s work; the bird’s eye view that he sometimes favours keeps topsy-turvy perspectives in play with a sudden leaping out of figures in proportions deliberately out of scale with their surroundings that suggest the area centralis – the visual kill-zone of the vigilant bird of prey; a falcon’s fovea alert to tasty anomalies on the ground. Sinclair has spoken of the helicopter as an emerging topos of modern landscape surveillance; perhaps the highly colourful and perspectival disordering of Bicknell’s aerial views is his way of both recording and commenting upon landscape change as the blades whir overhead, plotting irresistible removal of such records. From the distance of a few metres the surfaces of the larger Bicknell paintings, although apparently flat, have a luminous texture to them which upon close viewing reveals the manner by which the images are formed: the use of glass shards, grit, threads of schmatter and what I took to be lentil seeds. Again at a quick glance the paintings are decorative (and much pleasure is already to be had at that stage) but the more one looks the more deeply the images become weighted with meaning, and I felt curious gasps of delight quickly followed by slower reactions where I caught a glimmer of profound connectivity. This trajectory of looking I noted in myself again and again in these joyous but profound images.
I couldn’t resist an etching called ‘M25 Passion of the North’ part of The Pilgrim’s Progress cycle; the Medicine Buddha, the asyla of Shenley and Napsworth (both now redeveloped), star maps, and at the crux of the Golden Section, Sinclair entering a hedge gateway to St. Albans with Bicknell just below; all moulded into an intricate pattern for eye and mind to explore.
Journeys and maps. We make our own if we can recall enough of our movements; the best maps woven from wrong turnings, loops and returns.
So, my own diffuse superimposition on those lines and cradles of Sinclair, Bicknell made that day, 17th September 2017:
first to Highgate, but off the train at Archway to test my haunches (ached after 2 minutes), up the hill to see whether the ancient bookshop half way up really had closed (the bell on the door, the alcove at the back with a sliding window – empty until approach when suddenly the venerable, bald, diminutive proprietor is revealed (the spitting image of Billy Fine my father-in-law), as if suddenly he’d descended by fireman’s pole from an upper floor, an homunculus guardian of faded first editions and impossibly obscure pamphlets, several of which on the industrial architecture of tin mining, or by slim volume poets, I was sure to purchase), – it really had closed, ‘long gone’, said the denizen of an interior design emporium nearby;
to assorted charity shops at the top of the hill for further scavenging (2 beautiful LPs – Mercury Living Presence, but suspiciously light; inside it’s Peters and Lee and Your Hundred Best Tunes, not Dorati’s Minneapolis engraved on heavy vinyl – , a few paperbacks, a hardback of selections from the Greek Anthology with lovely yet uncredited line drawings), (knees gave out stooping for art books);
to The Woodman to meet composer Steve Elcock and his wife Anneke; we symphonists (cranking them out in silence until Martin Anderson took us up) must stick together since renewed pronouncements over the death of the form erode our stock, fish and chips, humus salad, curry surprisingly good despite its grey oil slick, trading the symphonies of Havergal Brian until we agree the 8th is the best, what would you do if you had four bassoons? – no it’s not the opening line of a joke but it should be, forced outside by bar staff driven mad by gastropub-itis, barking orders for artichoke compote across the yawning counter, bargaining loudly with phalanxes of late-arriving prams;
then on my own to find Gallery 46, Underground connections, city boys in shiny suits complaining of the latest cock-block in the fiscal jungle, Whitechapel, temporary exit in Canal Street, blue painted bridge where a man sleeps almost covered with open umbrellas, parasols of impermanent lodging; folk have left gifts: some fruit, a sandwich, the contents of a pencil case – he will record himself in prophetic books hopes the donor;
then St. Boniface – the German Mission Church, modern, Plaskett Marshall & Partners, with a magnificent bell tower, the old church (not as envisaged by Pugin whose design was never built) bombed by, well, the Germans – mission accomplished?, and where my mother sang and my father directed the choir in the masses and motets of Mozart, Haydn, Bruckner, and sentimental marvels from the lower leagues: Erb, Nussbaumer, Methsfessel, where I sat aged 7 or so, listening to the splendid organ, thrill of the reed stops, catching the lengthy sermons in German, knowing that the English version followed, Father Felix Leusacke’s musical voice like a planate Schubert Lied, bells and beer, sausages and sauerkraut, impossible German jokes with words like ‘bembissy’ and ‘bumfuss’ that dissolved all to helpless hilarity;
and to the relic of East End Jewry: the imposing edifice of the synagogue; we always passed it on the way home from St. Boniface, Dad always slowing the car and craning his neck, telling us about the waves of immigration and long beards, all a mystery to me until I married ‘in’ much much later, stunned by love, Lithuanian survivals, borscht and gefilte fish in Bloom’s;
and then sent spiralling into a dance between two hospitals, old and new: the Royal Londons, one fenced off in all-to-familiar blue hoardings, computer forecasts of regeneration, civic hub trumpery, disclaimers in tiny print, the usual buzzwords not recorded here for fear of exhausting the scare quotes quota; the other a monster of blue patchwork, stamping out the forlorn terraces below, the hope of the sick and the wonder of walkers;
and finally, after a brief pause to capture graffiti and wire fencing in the fading sun, where is that gallery?
Glimpse of the old Royal London Hospital
The previous, treated
Gallery 46 can be found (it really can) at 46 Ashfield Street, London, E1 2AJ.
The Jefferies quotation is from ‘Wiltshire Labourers’ in The Toilers of the Fields, 1892.
On page 170 of Sinclair’s The Last London, the bookshop I used to visit in Highgate is mentioned: Fisher and Sperr; I had completely forgotten the name but Sinclair’s description of it chimes with my memory.
The Last London author’s photo has the new Royal London Hospital as a backdrop, the very building that had mesmerised me with its blue squares on my way to the gallery. (Actually it isn’t the Royal London ‘but ought to be’ – communicated to me by the author)
I haven’t written
about the work (but hope to) of the other contributors to the exhibition:
Effie Paleologou, Barry Burman, John Bellany, Chris Petit, Brian Catling and Susanna Edwards, all fascinating; I really ought to find something to say about Catling’s egg tempera paintings which put me in silence, hence…..
Words and pictures: ©David Hackbridge Johnson 2017