Dreaming the city: Phlegm’s Sheffield bestiary

24 03 2015


The artist with the nom de plume Phlegm has an international reputation as one of the most inventive street artists working today. Banksy may be the leading figure in the recent commodification of urban graffiti (his new works now regularly protected by hastilly-mounted sheets of perspex), but his prominence often overshadows the extraordinary flowering of urban street art in cities across the world today: from the powerful political murals in Buenos Aires to the omnipresent splashes of spray paint that adorn almost every one of Detroit’s thousands of abandoned buildings. Still occupying an ambivalent zone between the legal and the illegal (with many graffiti artists still prosecuted for their activities), urban street art is also positioned at the juncture between the usually antagonist discourses of blight-busting and creative appropriation of defunct buildings and structures. Think what you will of its value, there is no doubt that graffiti changes both the aesthetics and experience of the built (and unbuilt) environment.





Phlegm’s Sheffield-based work (his most concentrated of a vast series of works that can also be found in cities in Spain, Australia, Norway, Canada, Sri Lanka, USA and Poland) provides a touchstone that links together the city’s numerous abandoned buildings. Cycling along the River Don (Sheffield’s principal river and site of heavy industry since the early nineteenth century), from the railway station to the edge that is now the vast Meadowhall shopping centre, Phlegm’s works are like invitations into a secret world; a group of murals glimpsed from the canal tow path involved a subtle navigation of brownfield sites to get right up close to them. Three fish-based pieces: on one side of a brick viaduct two figures hunched in coracles carry outsized fish (1); directly opposite, another figure hauls an equally outlandish catch skewered on a spear (2); while, on the other side of the wall, the tail end of another huge fish seems to emerge directly out of the ground (3).





The enigmatic figures in Phlegm’s murals – often shrouded in wraith-like garments – were first developed in his self-published comics. These figures are always ambivalent – half childlike, half menacing – and long-limbed, as if they had emerged secretively into the city from some mythic woodland existence. They are part of a bestiary (the title of his first solo exhibition at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch in 2013), an ever-evolving but deeply personal collection of dream-like creatures that present strange narratives that now link cities across the world. Those in Sheffield (and I only found a few of them) invite a more localised reading: one figure holds an outsized telescope that reaches right across the façade of a city-centre ruin (4; a ruin now almost completely covered in graffiti art); near the River Don, a worm-like figure has itself eroded into the ruined wall that it adorns (5); while a relative of that same figure seems to carry a whole fantasy city on his back on the side of a shop in the University district (6).





Increasingly straddling the illicit and the legal (the shop mural is one of his many commissioned works), Phlegm’s murals invite a questioning of not only the value of what is normally derided as a narcissistic, infantile act (graffiti that simply tags), but also the place of the private imagination in the public sphere. We may dream freely in the sanctioned spaces of our beds or baths; but what might it mean for all of us to dream as freely as this in the spaces of the cities we also inhabit?

Ruin Lust: fettered pleasures at Tate Britain

31 03 2014


J M W Turner, 'The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey', 1794

J M W Turner, The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey (1794)

Ruin Lust – on at Tate Britain until 18 May – explores artists’ fascination with ruins from the eighteenth century to the present day. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition takes us on a journey through the many meanings of ruins: as sites of aesthetic pleasure, melancholy reverie, or war-torn devastation; as places of memory or premonitions of the future; as sites embedded in landscapes or encompassing entire cities. From Turner’s delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey from the 1790s to Laura Oldfield Ford’s disquieting paintings of present-day housing estates, ruins have for centuries been imaged by artists as places to think through the meaning of time: for all ruins, whether ancient or modern, invite (or perhaps demand) a kind of awareness that moves slower than normal, one that inhabits (for a moment at least) a gap, or a place apart. 

Joseph Gandy, 'A Bird's-eye view of the Bank of England', 1830

Joseph Gandy, A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England (1830)

Indeed, before we even enter the exhibition space of Ruin Lust, a series of quotations invite us to think in a certain way, to make the link between ruins as physical objects and what’s going on in our minds, whether an extract from W. G. Sebald’s late novel Austerlitz (2001) or James Joyce’s apocalyptic musings in Ulysses (1922). Why is it that gazing at ruins seems to mirror something fundamental in the human body? The title of the exhibition suggests that the act of looking at ruins is invested with libidinal energy, a kind of revelling in the sensual excess of decay that is perhaps rather unseemly. Yet, very little in this exhibition is suggestive of the kind of ‘ruin porn’ that is increasingly filling up the internet and the (electronic) pages of tabloid newspapers such as the Mail Online. Rather, here is ruin lust at its most refined, deriving more from the mind than the body. Only John Martin’s end-of-the-world bombast and Laura Oldfield Ford’s lurid canvases of post-punk revolutionaries waiting for action in ‘sink’ estates come close to the daemonic energy of the kind of ruin lust that draws in the crowds to the latest apocalyptic blockbuster or the Mail Online’s almost daily dose of ruin porn.

Jane & Louise Wilson, 'Urville', 2006

Jane & Louise Wilson, Urville (2007)

Indeed, much of the work on show in this exhibition is meant to direct us away from ruin lust towards a more contemplative or critical gaze. Thus Joseph Gandy’s extraordinary painting Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) shows John Soane’s recently completed building in the far distance future, its otherwise secure spaces opened up to view through a process of ruination. Here, ruin speaks of a kind of beauty in ageing, although to a contemporary viewer it cannot help but be a barbed critique of our bloated financial overlords. No lust here from the vantage point of a passing crow; only distanced longing perhaps. Back down to earth, Jane and Louise Wilson’s black-and-white photographs of the fantastical outsized sculptural objects that are the remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications speak more of alien presences than material excess, their mythic titles – Azeville (2006), Urville (2007) and Biville (2006) – signalling a temporal shift into some kind of mythic time. Like the revelatory ruins of the Statue of Liberty appearing at the end of The Planet of the Apes (1968), the Wilsons’ photographs seem to disrupt conventional notions of time – are these the ruins of a defunct ancient civilisation or those of our own in the far distant future? 

Laura Oldfield Ford,

Laura Oldfield Ford, TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012)

What most of these representations steer away from is the sensual excess of the ruin, its power to overwhelm and envelop the subject, something the cultural geographer Tim Edensor has written beautifully about in his book Industrial Ruins (2005). It’s as if these images are saying: ‘don’t get too close to ruins – keep your distance so you can make them mean something else’. This pervasive sense of ruins as allegories is challenged directly by Laura Oldfield Ford’s paintings (and more generally in her practice as an artist). Rendered in shocking pink, her depictions of semi-ruined spaces are unashamedly tasteless and suggest that even (or perhaps especially) mundane dilapidation can be fertile ground for subversive desires. In TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012), the two young female figures are engaged in focused yet unspecified activity, amidst the shabby (but definitely not shabby-chic) interior of their modernist apartment. There’s something peculiarly repulsive about this painting, a feeling that is mirrored in the visceral quality of modern ruins. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens spoke eloquently about the ‘attraction of repulsion’ in Victorian London; Ford has rendered this in the contemporary city. Ruins, if they are ‘real’ rather than manicured, always produce this attraction of repulsion; they invite you to rub your nose in their material excesses, to roll around in their vulgarity, to delight in their repulsiveness. As Ford reminds us, to live in ruins is precisely to embrace them as ruins, to allow them to be places that incubate strange, fertile and potentially revolutionary desires.  


Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.

Utopian ruins: Fountain Gardens, Paisley

19 03 2012

Fountain Gardens, Paisley in March 2012

Paisley is a satellite town of Glasgow that has all the characteristics of post-industrial grimness: soot-blackened buildings, ruins of its once-thriving textile industry, and a grand Victorian High Street now in sad decline, with boarded-up shops the most recent reminder of its precarious fortunes. I headed out there on a train from Glasgow Central on a bright March morning; fifteen minutes later in Paisley, rain-sodden clouds had gathered, whipped up by a ferocious westerly.

The fountain when it was built in 1868

I had come to see the town’s Fountain Gardens, a philanthropic gift to the citizens of Paisley in 1868 by a local resident, Thomas Coats, made wealthy by the manufacturing industries that had seen the town grow rapidly in the mid-19th century. Coats had purchased the gardens from their private owners and then remodelled them as a civic space: ‘where the toil-worn mechanic may breath the fresh air’ or more refined citizens be reminded of the ‘public gardens of continental countries’. Such an ‘interchange of civilities’ between classes would enhance social harmony in the town, guided by the example of Coats himself in his munificent act of generosity.

Upper part of the fountain, March 2012

This kind of private philanthropy was common in Victorian towns and cities, particularly where industrialisation had perhaps led to feelings of guilt among the wealthy manufacturing elite about the often appalling social conditions of their workers. In Fountain Gardens, Coats wanted to create a new form of civility – a reconciliation of worker and master – symbolised by the central feature of the gardens, the fountains themselves. As described in a lavish publication celebrating the opening of the Gardens, the fountain was an exceptional example of ornamental cast-iron manufacture, made by the Sun Foundry (George Smith & Co) in Glasgow and unlike any other example produced before or since.

The opening of Fountain Gardens, as depicted in 1868

Described as ‘Franco Italian’ in character, the fountain was 30-ft high with a 12-ft basin on the ground supporting four further basins, divided into sections by four heavy buttresses and a series of ‘bold and well-defined’ curves. As described in The Builder, the wealth of ornament was extravagant and included, from bottom to top, a circular border cast in imitation of huge blocks of rock thrown together, inside which sit four life-size representations of walruses; in the basin above are cherubs holding crocodiles; those above are encrusted with crystals, floriated capitals, sea-horses, bulrushes, and dolphins and, at the top, a group of herons surmounted by a cluster of aquatic plants.

One of the four life-size cast-iron walruses (minus tusks) in March 2012

Such extravagant decoration was viewed as ‘creditable to the taste and liberality of Mr Coats and the artistic skill of its constructors’. In addition to the gardens functioning as the ‘lungs’ of the town, the ornaments of the fountain would provide both a lesson in artistic taste and also a utopian representation of nature and industry reconciled, mirroring the social reconciliation that was anticipated in the Gardens themselves. Those who attended the opening of the Gardens on 26 May 1868 seemed to confirm this. The whole town rested for the day, held together in common ‘by one strong swelling impulse to do something in the way of expressing a great common feeling’. All political and personal differences were put aside and the townsfolk acted ‘harmoniously’, joining a procession through the town that culminated in the opening of the Gardens and the turning on of the fountain waters.

Rust-streaked cherub holding a crocodile, March 2012

Today, of course, the rusting fountain stands in melancholy isolation in the Gardens – now little more than a large patch of grass surrounded by bleak 1960s apartment blocks. The cast-iron walrus tusks have all been removed, as have the shells and small animals that once clung to the surrounding imitation rocks; the cherubs and crocodiles are streaked with rust; and the waters long since turned off. Like so much Victorian cast iron, this fountain is now a ruin; yet one that nevertheless reminds us, by force of its melancholy present-day situation, of its once potent utopian symbolism, expressed in 1868 by a long-time resident and notable local poetess:

‘When the daily task is done,
‘Neath the shady arbour rest
With the friend thou lovest best
Husband, father, rest thee now,
Wipe the toil-stains from your brow;
Come, with wife and children dear,
Peaceful beauty greets thee here
Here enjoy the leisure hour;
And may rock, and fount, and flower
With deep love thy soul embue
For the beautiful and the true’

The Ancoats Peeps

3 10 2011

1. Peep 9, 'Clocking Off'

In 2002, the artist Dan Dubowitz was commissioned to contribute to the regeneration of Ancoats – an old and dilapidated industrial quarter of inner-city Manchester. Over the next eight years, he made a series of ‘Peeps’ – twelve brass peepholes in the walls of buildings viewed from the streets which revealed installations constructed in steel boxes embedded in the cavities behind. In addition, Dubowitz also helped create the area’s first public square – the Cutting Room – opened in 2010.

2. Peep 3, 'Mary's Room'

As documented in the 2011 book The Presence of Absence, the Ancoats Peeps offer ‘a fleeting glimpse of a walled-in space; a tunnel, a disused toilet, a spinning governor, a bell tower, a gauge.’ The worlds seen through the Peeps are intimately connected with Ancoats’ industrial past. It was once the first industrial suburb of the centre of the world’s cotton industry – that is, early Victorian Manchester – and the Peeps are saturated with nostalgic images of heavy industry: strange machines (2), dials, dirt and the toil of incessant work governed by the clock (1). Yet, despite being grounded in the history of the area, they are enigmatic images, strongly suggestive of former lives but ultimately mysterious in their meanings.

3. The Beach Club in Ancoats

4. The patina of decay on a wall in Ancoats

As an integral part in the planned regeneration of Ancoats, the Peeps are also much more than isolated visual reminders of the area’s industrial past; rather, they’re very much part of a projected image of a future for this now run-down and virtually silent part of the city. Walking around Ancoats on a grey Sunday afternoon with my wife and daughter, searching for the Peeps was bound up with experiencing the city in a new way. Ancoats is not an area of Manchester one would visit for any reason: it’s a forbidding place, almost devoid of people, its buildings seemingly in an interminable state of decay apart from a few pockets of gentrification. In the courtyard of one former warehouse, now converted into apartments, a makeshift nightclub is walled-in by images of the sea, its floor covered in sand (3); the wholesale decay of other buildings offering strange patterns that are sometimes mirrored in the forms of the peeps themselves (4); while a single tile on a wall is stencilled with the word ‘DEFECT’ (5). Are these also artists’ interventions, bits of history, or simply the result of natural processes of decay?

5. Defective tile or artist's intervention?

In one sense, the creation of the Peeps and the activity of looking for them makes you see urban space in a different way, one that makes everyday things suddenly seem like art (and vice versa). This re-enchantment of urban space has a long history, often bound up with densely theoretical texts and practices, but the way it happens here is disarmingly simple and bound up with an experience that is open to all (6).

6. Peeping in Ancoats


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