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'

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions