Category Archives: art

Municipal murals of 1980s London

Humans have been making murals — painting a bit of art directly on a wall — for millennia, the world over. Different walls, at different times and in different places, have all reflected different mural cultures. I’m a fan of the crumbling remains of the municipal murals of 1980s London, and here’s a brief trip through some of them.

The London Mural Preservation Society have a great map of these, with detailed notes. It’s not exhaustive — they don’t, for example, cover the many murals in primary school playgrounds — but it does offer background information for over sixty of them.

Surveying them as a whole, some key themes emerge. First up, nature. The French town of Grenoble recently announced it would get rid of advertising billboards and plant trees instead. It seems that when 1980s Londoners were offered the side of a wall for community art, rather than to sell as advertising space, they looked towards something green. And it wasn’t necessarily an escape to the countryside, but to draw out the nature around them too.

A great example of is the Highbury Grove Mural. Painted in 1986-7, it was sadly destroyed last September, after a “blunder” at the Town Hall. Stretching the height of a several-story terrace house, it celebrated the biodiversity of the local area with paintings of plants and animals which lived around it. There was even a numbered key next to the mural, identifying the species included.

South of the river — and still in existence, albeit heavily faded — the Tapestry of Life mural near Clapham Junction is based on the hothouses at Kew Gardens. Opened by David Bellamy in 1983, it was the first mural to be funded by the Greater London Council (GLC).  I love the little girl peeking out at the side.

Tapestry of Life Mural, near Clapham Junction.

Tapestry of Life Mural, near Clapham Junction.

Detail, Tapestry of Life. Can you spot the Peacock?

Detail, Tapestry of Life. Can you spot the Peacock?

Detail, Tapestry of Life.

Detail, Tapestry of Life.

Hoxton’s City Garden mural was painted by local schoolchildren in 1981. Rows of corn, cabbages and beetroot are tended by the shadow of an agricultural worker (though it’s so faded, he or she is little more than a ghost). It looks like beds of roses at the base too, but it is hard to see because it’s covered in graffiti. The piece is a mix of paint and mosaic, with gleaming pieces of mirrored glass picking out particular crops. If you want to visit, it’s just up from the Geffrye Museum, and makes an interesting contrast to the more modern street art the area just South of there is so well known for now.

City Garden Mural, Hoxton.

City Garden Mural, Hoxton.

A couple of murals in Brixton demonstrate public enthusiasm for painting nature on the side of their buildings. When the Bellefields Road mural was designed in 1987, the London Wall Mural Group sent out questionnaires to local residents, asking about what they wanted to see. The answer was birds, flowers and something non-political. At night, you can spot live foxes scurrying along under the painted one.

Fox, Bellfields Road mural.

Fox, Bellfields Road mural.

The Mauleverer Road mural — on side of the stables of an old lager factory — was developed in 1983, when a local residents group wanted to cover up a wall of graffiti. The mural starts with woodland, based on photographs of the New Forest, which lead onto a walled garden based on the local Brockwell Park. There is also a large image of the Caribbean, reflecting geographical links of the area, and horses, reflecting the previous use of the building. It was varnished, which is maybe why it is in such good condition, but it’s also threatened with at least partial demolition due to redevelopment, so visit it before it goes.

Mauleverer Road mural, Brixton.

Mauleverer Road mural, Brixton.

Another strong theme of the 1980s London murals is anti-war, with a particular focus on nuclear proliferation. This reflects the politics of the time, especially the rather left-leaning pro-CND stance of those involved in commissioning or producing the murals.

In the early 1980s, six murals were commissioned from a ‘London Muralists for Peace’ group. One of the most striking of these is Nuclear Dawn, painted by Brian Barnes in 1981. Stretching twenty-five square metres in size, a giant skeletal figure, swathed in the flags of nuclear states, stands astride the city as a nuclear bomb goes off behind and more pour from his hands. Just opposite an entrance to the newly developed Brixton Village, it can be quite alarming to stumble across as you wander out of the local pubs at closing time. It’s another one likely to be demolished soon and worth a visit before it goes.

Nuclear Dawn, Brixton.

Nuclear Dawn, Brixton.

Nuclear Dawn’s sister mural, Riders of the Apocalypse, is harder to find, but no less an unsettling sight. On the side of the Sanford Housing Co-operative in New Cross, it’s also by Brian Barnes, but a couple of years later, in 1983. Slightly shorter, but still the height of the side of a house, it shows Minister Margaret Thatcher, Yuri Andropov, Ronald Reagan and Michael Heseltine riding cruise missiles, Strangelove style. Both Thatcher and Reagan are showing rather a lot of thigh. You can also spot references to the economics of the military industrial complex, CND, ecology, and the role of feminism in the peace movement. At the base of the mural are a set of portraits — I’d love to know who they all are — and a nod to explicitly socialist stance of the aspects of the GLC which supported it.

Detail of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Detail of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Detail at base of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Detail at base of Riders of the Apocalypse, New Cross.

Brian Barnes pops up again in 2005, in connection to dispute over a rather different war. The war memorial mural at Stockwell was being redeveloped, and a portrait of Jean Charles de Menezes — killed by police at Stockwell underground station in 2005, wrongly suspected as a terrorist — had been flagged as graffiti. As a report from the time in the Guardian notes, most graffiti doesn’t take 16 hours from a graduate of the Royal College of Art. What’s more, it was part of Barnes’ commission and, he argued, in keeping with the spirit of the memorial. Members of the British Legion protested, because de Menezes didn’t die in a war, and there was an attempt to paint over the portrait in blue emulsion, but activists at the weekly vigal to commemorate the shooting told the Guardian “It’s because it’s meant to be a war memorial? Well, he is a kind of fallen soldier. He died because of the war on terror, didn’t he?”

A less obviously anti-nuclear peace mural can be found in Dalston Junction, just next to the CLR James library, with the Hackney Peace Carnival mural. Painted in 1985, it was restored in 2014, so is in excellent condition. At first glance it just looks like a joyous street party, but the political message is there, with banners proclaiming jobs not bombs, no more Hiroshimas and nuclear fee zone. You can also spot references to several unions, Greenpeace and local community arts space, Chats Palace.

Hackney Peace Carnival, Hoxton.

Hackney Peace Carnival, Hoxton.

Detail of Hackney Peace Carnival, spot the "Jobs Not Bombs" banner.

Detail of Hackney Peace Carnival, spot the “Jobs Not Bombs” banner.

There’s also a way in which murals are used to stress a sense of peace in the community. In North London, the Broadwater Farm Peace mural was commissioned in 1987, after riots. One shows Gandhi, John Lennon and Bob Marley in a park with children playing and a mountain in the distance, with Martin Luther King at the summit of the mountain, deep in thought. A sister mural, from 1991, also offers a calming waterfall. This took seven and half months and two dozen brushes. Due to the wall being pebble dash, the artists had to beat the paint into the walls with the brushes.

Brixton also has an example of a post-riot mural. Children At Play — high up, above the road, by the Brixton Academy — was painted in 1982. The initial idea had been to depict the struggle of local community, but apparently, following the Brixton Riots, that was seen as a negative reminder for the area, so an imagine depicting radical harmony was picked instead.

It’s a stone’s throw from the Police Station, and I’d like to know which parts of the local community, exactly, got a role in making that decision. Something about the overtly propagandist nature of this makes me uncomfortable. There’s something about the Broadwater ones that just feels patronising. There is a lot to be said for the community art projects reflected in these murals, and the ways they allowed people to work together, but the independent street-artists we are more familiar with today are possibly freer to offer a strong critique of the state.

That said, another striking theme in the 1980s murals is an attempt to depict a deliberately provocative “people’s history” of the area, stressing the role of protest, anti-racism and socialism. As with the peace murals, they are, at least, an example of left-leaning local political groups wresting for a voice against more right wing tendencies at both national and local level.

The most famous of these murals is probably the one on Cable Street, depicting the 1936 ‘battle’ of local residents against a group of fascists who choose to march through the area (and, to no small degree, the police). The idea was first floated in the mid 1970s, but not completed in March 1983, with actions of far-right groups a big part of the problem. Even after it was opened, it’s been vandalised several times. In June 1993 when it was attacked with paint bombs, then the artist restoring it had to contend with intimidation from far-right activists who poured paint on his car and slashed its tyres. Look out for a chamber pot being emptied onto fascists, and marbles being thrown under the hooves of police horses.

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural was painted in 1990, with more than a nod to the Poll Tax of the time, and commemorates a protest of 1921. Thirty local councillors — including George Lansbury, Angela Lansbury’s grandfather — refused to collect taxes from residents who were living in extreme poverty. They knew they might risk being sent to prison, and were. Undeterred, Lansbury would address crowds through the bars (he’d previously been imprisoned for inciting suffragettes, it wasn’t an entirely new experience for him). Someone should make a movie of that story, not just a mural.

Poplar Rates Rebellion mural.

Poplar Rates Rebellion mural.

More centrally located, the Tolpuddle Martyrs Mural in Islington was painted in 1984 to commemorate a local gathering of people to protest against the deportation of 19th century Dorset trade unionists. The mural was temporarily covered up by advertising in the 1990s, but local residents campaigned to have them removed, and a 2008 addition to the mural reflects the role of a local activist in this fight.

Tolepuddle mural, Islington

Tolepuddle mural, Islington

Back in South London, Battersea in Perspective offers an ariel view of the local area, but also some social “perspective” of sorts by way of some local history. A series of portraits at the bast of the mural include John Archer, Britain’s first elected politician of African descent, Shapurji Saklatvala, a Mumbai-born Communist MP for Battersea North in 1922 who was jailed for two months in 1926 for making a speech supporting striking miners, Alf Dubs, who arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport and went on to be a local MP, and suffragette, anti-vivisection advocate and Sinn Féin activist, Charlotte Despard. This was 1988, when references to Sinn Féin and miners would be especially resonant. Using special German mural paint, it is in excellent condition today, but social make up of the area has changed radically since it was painted. I wonder what sort of perspective similar artists would put Battersea in today.

Battersea in Perspective, top.

Battersea in Perspective, top.

Some of the portraits at the base of the Battersea in Perspective mural.

Some of the portraits at the base of the Battersea in Perspective mural.

Not all the memorials to local histories are centred on political events. Love Over Gold, painted in 1989, in Depford is named after a Dire Straits song, because several members of the band grew up in the area (apparently Mark Knopfler was inspired by graffiti on a wall near the Crossfeilds Estate). The artist, Gary Drostle, worked with kids at the local primary school, using their pictures as the basis of the mural. He asked them to consider issues of wealth distribution and the environment, and disability is a strong theme, reflecting an organisation training disabled people which used to be in the area. There’s even some braille in the mural, though it’s two-dimensional, sadly it’s not really tactile art (though, as with most murals, you can touch it if you want).

To cheat a bit, and end with one of the murals of the 1970s that laid the ground (or rather, wall) for this wave of public art, the Floyd Road mural is a real classic. It depicts local people working together to stop their housing being destroyed. The mural uses the side of the house it’s painted on as an explicit frame, with windows and the shape of the roof offering the angular arms of the diggers the people are fighting. Floyd Road is a nice example of the community activity that many of these murals reflected.

Floyd Road, Charlton.

Floyd Road, Charlton.

Detail of Floyd Rod mural.

Detail of Floyd Rod mural.

Advertisements

The Portslade “Gassie”

portland gassie

In Scotland, it’s traditional to give people coal when first greeting them in the new year. It’s meant to symbolise hope for warmth and light for the future, rather different from the tradition of giving naughty children nothing but coal in their Christmas stocking (from other parts of Northern Europe, I think).

I don’t have any coal, but here’s a picture reflecting another way in which our reliance on fossil fuels runs deep: the “Portslade Gassie”. It’s a piece of public art – not the most aesthetically striking of objects, stuck by a rather dull bit of road and covered in litter when I stumbled across it this afternoon – but marking an interesting piece of energy history. Gasworks were built in Portslade in 1884, after local demand outstripped the smaller works at Black Rock (built in 1818), partly because the location allowed easy delivery of coal by ship. By the 1920s, the site occupied 40 acres, providing work for many local residents (some more details on this local history blog, including a fascinating history of lighting the Brighton Pavilion). Workers were ferried across a canal by small boats nicknamed “gassies”, which this slightly angular, statue of a man in a boat represents.

This artwork doesn’t help us think about what our energy future should be, but it does at least prompt us us think about the past. It also reminds us that energy infrastructure is something made by people. I re-watched Brassed Off over Christmas, which is more directly about coal, and helps make a similar point.  How we find, distribute and use energy is something that changes over time, not always due to the wishes of these people or what is necessarily best for the world. It’s something we’ve made, and should be thoughtfully remade.

Nature in cities: the weird trees of Seattle

Eagle, Seattle

I took this photo yesterday morning, out for a walk in the mist around Seattle’s waterfront. The red pointy thing on the left is Alexander Calder’s The Eagle (painted steel, 1971) next to a few trees planted within the Olympic Sculpture Park. I snapped a picture, cropped it and uploaded it to this page. There you go. Nature: tamed, translated, abstracted and remediated several times over.

Something about the abstracted eagle and that carefully planted line of trees reminded me of the new Lorax movie, which I saw last week. [Warning: very minor spoilers] It’s a fable on the distance we’ve come from nature played out through a juxtaposition of real trees and remote-controlled manmade ones; the message being we should stop letting industry fabricate a sellable, apparently controllable nature, and instead just let it grow. And yet, despite this message, it’s told through an odd Dr-Seuss-by-way-of-Pixar fantastic hyperreal style of cartooning. I’m not about to appeal to a knee-jerk critique of postmodernity and plead for a simply really-real depiction of nature. When there was all that fuss about the BBC and polar bears last year, I rolled my eyes at the naivety and largely went with the George Monbiot view. As I argued last month in respects to protest symbols and museum artefacts, sometimes we have to re-make nature to really see it, or at least to share a view of it. Still, the way in which the Lorax movie’s message is presented does inspire a certain type of head-desk. Why not just go outside and get your hands dirty planting something? (arguably because a movie allows the production of consumable goods, but that’s a whole other thread of head-desking).

Back to the sculpture park. A bit along from that eagle is a silver tree. I think it is also made from steel, but I couldn’t find a label. It was slightly like a Dr Seuss illustration itself, and eerily beautiful amongst green grass and pink flowers, also in the mist. I saw a crow fly around and then perch upon one of the higher branches. I’m not sure what Dr Seuss would have made of it, something about the sight reminded me of L. Frank Baum.

Silver tree, by Seattle Art Museum

There’s something about trees in cities which says a lot about humans’ relationship with nature in modernity. Planted to provide controlled moments of green amongst browns and greys, they may annoy us with pollen or overgrowing roots but we generally appreciate them. Especially in the case of the London plane, they can be surprisingly study, despite the pollution thrown at them. They give us shelter, shade and air, as well as changing the more regulated colours, lines and shapes of a modern city. As the Trees for Cities campaign argues, cities need their trees. It’s also worth mentioning Seattle’s “renegade park” the Pollinator Pathway – a mile long corridor of gardens aiming to combine art, ecology, science and community engagement – which has a display case just next to that silver tree.

If you want something really Seuss-like, in downtown Seattle someone’s painted a load of trees bright blue. I googled “blue trees Seattle WTF” and discovered it’s more art, designed to draw attention to deforestation. According to a piece on Atlantic Cities, the artist used a colorant that doesn’t harm the trees, even if it’s designed to jar with your idea of a healthy tree (it’s worth clicking the Atlantic link to see a picture of them covered in blossom, quite something, or there’s more on the artist’s website).

Trees painted blue, by Seattle Occupy

I’ve saved the best trees in Seattle till last though, and they’re a lot simpler. These were a bit south of the sculpture park, by some rail tracks running alongside the harbour. Someone had hung piping between the trees and stuck a load of plant ports made from old milk cartons to it. Water-cooler sized bottles were stuffed in the trees’ branches, with the pipes running out of their mouths, which I guess provide a watering system of some sort. They aren’t as polished as the silver tree or as striking as the blue ones, but they’re stunningly beautiful and quite the best bit of bunting I’ve seen all year (I live in London, I’ve seen a lot of bunting this year).

Many of Seattle’s trees made me smile, but these milk-carton plant-bunting ones inspired me. You can watch the oh-too-ironic Lorax movie or you can go out and plant something. Go, try guerrilla gardening.

BEST. BUNTING. EV-ER.

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road…

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road. You have to look carefully, but it’s there. It’s that egg-like object in the photo above. Or at least that’s the top of it, the red thing next to it is the base.

No, it’s nothing to do with our upcoming sports extravaganza. It’s been there for years. It’s also bloody heavy, though it’s well over a decade since I handled the thing. It’s not a real nuclear missile. It’s a model. It belongs to CND, whose offices are also above said vintage clothes shop. They have an inflatable one these days, but the “missile” used to tour round the country every summer as a way of taking military technology to the people. Or at least it took a talking point for discussing such objects, in absence of the real thing. It’s not like the MoD are going to let CND play with an actual one.

The Holloway Road missile is only one in a cast of mockups of technological or natural objects used by campaigners. There was the whale the World Wildlife Fund drove down the Thames in February, or Greenpeace’s “polar bears” that sprung up in cities across the world last week. I walked by some orangoutangs outside on Tottenham Court Rd a few weeks ago too, protesting about deforestation. Environmental activist orangoutangs, it turns out, wear sandals (it was really hot that day). My favourite is probably Water Aid’s giant river crafted from 100s of blue squares posted by an international network of knitters; a wooly petition which ended up draped over the National Theatre.

Those are all clear, explicit fakes. They’re not mermen. They’re not designed to con. They are not even trick-then-reveal projects like the Yes Men Arctic Ready site or the OFT fat melting pads. Such overt fabrications are openly designed to expose those bits of the world which are too far away, too dangerous, too secret or too unruly to be experienced directly by most of us. They’re a moment of spectacular, a slight subversion of the world designed to draw attention and inspire learning or action. They are falsehoods in a way, but there to express something people feel very strongly is important and true. They bring a bit of reality to us by being unreal.

It’s not just activists who engage in such subverted realism. It’s a quite routine part of the public communication of science, technology and the environment. Metaphor or analogy in text, CGI or filming “under controlled conditions” for a documentary. I think museums provide the best examples though. Museums of science and technology often have to find inventive ways to fit the large, dangerous or simply abstract things they curate into a glass case: Einstein’s chalkboard, Galileo’s finger, Florence Nightengale’s moccasins, models of boats, a bowl from Hiroshima. My favourite example of this has to be the Science Museum’s DNA model. They wanted to display the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. Except the people in the lab had taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was staged. The museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a mockup, albeit an official one, unveiled by Watson himself, but a mockup nonetheless.

When it comes to the bits of the world natural history museums want to encase, once living things are often pickled, stuffed or rebuilt from fossils (though they model too, from the Crystal Palace dinosaurs to modern animatronic models or IMAX movies) . With the recent death of “Lonesome George” the Galapagos giant tortoise, there’s been some interesting debate over what to do with his body. Henry Nicholls argues we shouldn’t stuff George, writing a thoughtful piece about the politics of preserving other iconic animals (though I wondered why he didn’t mention Jeremy Bentham). In contrast, Paolo Viscardi stresses museums’ role as research institutions as well as public communication, saying George should be preserved for science. Both pieces are worth reading. Incidentally, Viscardi works at the Horinman, which is where the merman I linked to earlier resides, and also contains the most amazing inaccurately overstuffed Walrus (one of the many museum exhibits which tweet a form of post-mortem anthropomorphic existence). I can also recommend this piece by Phillip Hoare on how to remember the whale that died in the Thames a few years ago, or the Brown Dog statue in Battersea‘s worth a visit.

I’m rambling. My point is that we all do a lot of fictional work to have non-fictional discussion and fabricate things in order to debate things we hold as truths. It’s normal, it’s necessary and to think otherwise is just a bit limiting. The trick is to consider which bit of reality we want to communicate, and stay as true to that as you can.

If anyone has any other examples of fabricated, refashioned or reconstructed aspects of science, technology or the natural world used for public communication, I’d love to hear them. Bet there’s loads of ageing science props hidden in store cupboards of museums, NGOs, schools and film studios the world over.

The beauty of a grazed knee

You might have heard the poem Lamia by John Keats, which includes the lines: “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine. Unweave a rainbow…”.

Richard Dawkins takes this to task in a book, Unweaving the Rainbow. In the introduction, he argues Newton’s optics, far from destroying the beauty of Keats’ rainbow, opened up a whole new set of wonders. They revealed mysterious beauties rather than destroying them. Dawkins isn’t the only person to express this sort of aesthetic appeal of science. We could equally mention Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, or a host of other people writing about science, right back to the 17th century.

It’s also an approach used by the Horrible Science books I wrote my PhD thesis on, and I can be quite cynical about it at times. Still, if I’m honest, it’s an aesthetic I often share, and I was reminded of Dawkins’ response to Keats at the Wellcome Images Awards last night.

A picture of a mouse’ kidney was put up, and the guy behind me whispered “wow that’s quite cool” and I found myself replying “that’s VERY cool”. It wasn’t the only image to make us go wow. This was my favourite: A scanning electron micrograph of clotting blood caught between the fibres of a plaster.

Full details at Wellcome Images

Maybe it’s because I fell flat on my face outside the British Library last week (leaving me with grazed-knee a 7 year old would be proud of…) but I was captivated by this image. It’s something really mundane, indeed something we might flinch at the ugliness of. In many respects the very opposite of Keat’s rainbow. However, here, it is shown in a way we would not normally be able to see. Science has ‘unwoven’ it, maybe, but in doing so has changed and abstracted it into something very beautiful. It’s woven something new.

Moreover, this image is not only wonderous in itself, but makes you wonder. Or at least it made me wonder. It drew me in, made me remember what I knew about blood clotting and question what I don’t already know. Because if we take Dawkins’ point seriously, it’s not just beautiful as a piece of abstract art, it is because I know something about the context of the image too. It is beautiful because it opens up new ideas, and stands as a reflection of years of history of people working to open such ideas up.

I’ve been planning to do a post on the philosophical and historical points around this – a sort of ‘brief history of awesome’ – but explaining the technological sublime in a couple of hundred words has, so far, proved tricky. I do promise to get around it at some point though. EDIT: done! A brief history of awesome, or a short treatise on the politics of wonder, featuring Immanuel Kant and Zaphod Beeblebrox.

Student Sci-Art

Some examples of the interpretive practical group project we set our MSc students every year. They work in groups or three or four to produce something (and it can be about anything…) which reflects on some of the history, philosophy and social studies of science they study in the first term.

Four Scientists 2 Mendel's peas
Science Comic - inside Enlightenment Edward - close up

From the top-left clockwise, four scientists of the televisual age argue over how they see “the public”, Mendel’s pea (part of a knitted history of genetics), a philosophy of science influenced comic book, and “Enlightenment Edward” (part of a collection of history of science action men).

Each of the photos are links to flickr, where you can find more notes. You’ll also see further examples of this year’s group projects, including: bottles of cider which they actually brewed (or rather sci-der), some clever photography, an experiment in Romantic Scientific painting, and a mashup of the Large Hadron Collider with Cologne Cathedral.