Beyond These Walls, South London Gallery, London
An exhibition close to a burnt-out south London estate looks long and hard at the gulf between 'us' and 'them'
Sunday 02 August 2009
On the afternoon of Friday 3 July, a fire broke out at Lakanal House on the Sceaux Gardens Estate in Camberwell. Within minutes, six people were dead, among them three children.
What is this sad story doing in an art review? Three weeks later, on Friday 24 July, an exhibition called Beyond These Walls opened at the South London Gallery, in the shadow of Lakanal House. Among works in the show is an installation by a thirtysomething Danish environmental artist called Tue Greenfort, best known for driving around in a plant oil-powered bus. Roughly speaking, the aim of Beyond These Walls is to re-examine the SLG's place in its locale, a piece of introspection brought about by the gallery's current expansion. Greenfort takes the show's title literally, his work consisting of punching a hole through the chain-link fence that separates the SLG from Sceaux Gardens and leaving the back door open. From inside this Victorian temple of art, you can now see the sub-Mies mess of Lakanal House.
Greenfort's intervention sounds less simple than simplistic: what more unsubtle way could there be of exploring a boundary than by snipping through it with wire cutters? And yet his work is oddly troubling.
For one thing, the new back way into the South London Gallery is, strictly speaking, not new at all. Greenfort's installation re-creates the original entrance to the SLG, closed off when Sceaux Gardens was built in 1960. Far from embracing Camberwell, the Dane's vandalised fence suggests the gap that has grown up between it and the gallery over the past 100 years. Rough-edged, the hole also feels illicit – the first thing you see as you walk through it is a sign on the SLG's back wall warning of burglar-proof paint. All this was brought into sharp focus by the fire at Lakanal House. In deference to local feeling, a plan to funnel visitors into the gallery via Sceaux Gardens had to be shelved. Despite Greenfort's hole, the divide between the us of contemporary art and the them of a council estate remains as sharp as ever.
It takes courage for an artist to say this kind of thing, but then Greenfort has never been short of that. Part of the point of his allegedly green bus is that it is actually hardly less polluting than the petrol-driven kind: a bumper sticker on it reads "Drive on plant oil, destroy the planet." The world, in Greenfort's view, is not an easy place to save; in fact, it may not be saveable at all.
If making this kind of work takes guts, then even more so does showing it. The simplest thing for the SLG to have done with Beyond These Walls would have been to commission work that spun the truth – icky, smiley things, oozing social inclusion and New Labour accessibility. Instead, and with typical rigour, the gallery has gone for the difficult route, allowing itself to be picked apart and the bits to be examined.
This is most literally true of a young Belgian called Leon Vranken. (None of the six foreign artists in the show knows much of London, thus coming to SE5 with a fresh eye.) If Greenfort exhumes the SLG's original entrance, then Vranken does the same with its floor. Entombed beneath the present wooden structure is a piece of High Victorian marquetry by Walter Crane, adorned with the legend "The source of art is in the life of a people". Vranken has sawed a cluster of neo-geo shapes out of the modern flooring, thus promising (misleadingly, as it turns out) a glimpse of Crane's original. He has then used the resulting off-cuts of wood to build a chair and a shelf.
Seen in the grandeur of the SLG's main gallery, Vranken's termite holes and rickety furniture seem pitiable, a pale shadow of that grand Victorian experiment in social engineering trumpeted by Crane's motto. At the same time, the shelf and chair, meagre and unheroic, do at least feel human. Through the South London Gallery's back door, left open by Greenfort, you can see the results of a later social experiment – the rip-off Modernist blocks of the Sceaux Gardens Estate, the shoddiness of their materials obvious even from here. What they have in common with Crane is a belief in the power of power, in the bigness of the big statement. By contrast, all the work in this show – Esther Stocker's foamboard Bridget Riley, Ayse Erkmen's hand-painted text on builders' helmets – speak modestly and in a quiet voice. As a result, like Beyond These Walls – like the South London Gallery itself – they also speak with force.
'Beyond These Walls', South London Gallery, London SE5 (020-7703 6120) to 20 Sep
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Student jailed for hacking University of Birmingham computers to improve his grades
- 2 Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 5 The most powerful passports in the world
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins
Sherlock series 4: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have to be 'persuaded' to return, says Steven Moffat
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Oldest footage of London landmarks released
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election