I cannot recommend Ali's Superstore highly enough as a venue for looking at art. If you're not a Brick Lane habitu, then the shop's contents will seem hopelessly exotic: shoals of small fish frozen in blocks; vines full of green things that may or may not be fruit; signs advertising baag ayre cut and large baem clean at 5.30 a kilo and 2.75 respectively. What we've come for, though, is an artwork. "Nick Waplington?" you say to the man at the counter. He shrugs and points to a pillar behind you.
What you see, next to a poster advertising the aforementioned small fish, is a photograph in a white frame. The image is of a rock pool and bladderwrack, its colours so saturated that they look hand-tinted. It measures, at a guess, eight inches by five. The photograph might have been taken by Mr Ali, or conceivably have been a present from Anraj Fish Products Limited of Chittagong. Actually, it was made on a large-format camera by Nick Waplington, a noted photo-artist.
So what is it doing in Ali's Superstore? The same thing that Waplington's shot of an empty dancefloor is doing on the wall of a ukulele shop round the corner in Hanbury Street, or his picture of a dustbin with a leg sticking out of it is doing in Nudge Records next door. For some idea of what that might be, you need to retrace your steps to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which is behind this outbreak of art in the shops of E1.
Most of the gallery is shut for refurbishment, but the White-chapel's auditorium is still open and Waplington's Synesthesia is playing on its screen. The work consists of a thousand still photographs, each projected on a screen for a couple of seconds and collectively described as "found images from internet file sharing sites". All were taken by soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, though few of them are obviously military: a baby, apple blossom, Arabic road signs, waitresses in a bar. Marlowe's "infinite riches in a little room" came to mind, though with trash substituted for gold. The soundtrack is a live feed from KCEO Radio San Diego. I may have chosen a bad moment to tune in, but the chat show I found myself listening to consisted of two good ol' boys trying to entice a young Brazilian woman on to their boat. ("Do you like wieners, Kelly?")
There's nothing in the literature accompanying Waplington's show to put a political slant on his work, but you feel nonetheless that this is his aim. For the past 500 years, the relationship between East and West has consisted of the spoilation of the former by the latter. Instead of spices and rubies, though, what we send home now is images not A Thousand and One Nights but a thousand photographs, each as banal as the other and all underwritten by a culture that listens to KCEO Radio.
It's not a cheery view of the world, and there is worse to come. Somewhere in Waplington's deadpan presentation, you get the sense of an inverse correlation between how much we see and how well we see it. We live in a time of internet file sharing and digital cameras, and yet the end result of these miracles is trash: Western adventurism, cultural idiocy, rubbish images.
And how does this tie in with the rock pool in Ali's Superstore? To be honest, I'm not sure I know. My guess, though, is that Waplington means his work to redeem the whole act of seeing. Synesthesia imports purblind photographs from the East; Waplington exports his own work around Brick Lane and its neighbouring streets as an antidote.
Where the soldiers' pictures are dumbed down and plentiful, his own are made slowly and with evident skill; they run through the shops and bars of Whitechapel like a thread of gold. Far from being easy to find, you have to seek them out a shot on a supermarket pillar here, another above a sheaf of ukulele music there. In the Golden Heart pub, play-place of Tracey Emin and the Chapmans, Waplington's pictures of a bus and a Punch and Judy show are hidden among the kind of photographs you find on pub walls. Only their white frames give them away. Seeing them is difficult, labour-intensive work, requiring shoe leather and a good deal of looking. But that, I would guess, is their point: that image sharing is worth the trouble only if the images themselves are hard.
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1 (020-7522 7878) to 20 January
Further reading For an authentic flavour of the East End of London, read Monica Ali's 'Brick Lane', published by Black Swan, price 7.99Reuse content