Construction in art

1883 magazine

© Dig Collective

It’s a familiar scene. A much-loved and used local amenity - library, school, pub or shop - suddenly gets boarded up. Windows turned into solid rectangles of painted board, tall hoardings wrap around the boundary forming a barrier from the street further pushing at the narrowing public realm.

After a while the hoardings attract graffiti, everything from grand artistic gestures to scrawling in Biro. Sometimes, the developer cuts a small viewing window into the perimeter wall, allowing glimpses of the construction process as they transform the place, but more often the surrounding wall precludes knowledge or sight of what’s happening to the inside. More often than not, nothing is happening and the building has only been enclosed so the owner can sit and wait, for years sometimes, for the land value to rise or the building to collapse. So, when the illegal squatters (or legal Camelot-style guardians) move in there are only hints at the occupation - an inside light occasionally on, a piece of furniture alone in an upstairs room. More time passes and even people have abandoned the crumbling building, nature taking over as it’s abandoned to weather and time. Now cheaper to demolish than refurbish, an investment company releases the funds and rapidly a block of bland boxes is erected on the site.

And now it’s happening at Peer, a much loved artistic space in Hoxton Street. Over the course of a week DIG Collective will turn their building into a boarded up building site as part of their current project Real Estates, curated by Fugitive Images. It is a series of week-long programmes of events and artistic projects looking into spatial justice and politics of housing. But DIG are only working on the outside of the gallery, it’s a paper thin appearance suggesting an internal transformation from gallery into overpriced and compressed ‘luxury’ apartments.

DIG Collective were formed to interrogate a perfectly cube hole they dug into a Hackney rectory garden. The sweat and toil of their manual labour soon gave way to intellectual work over a summer-long programme of artistic interventions involving artists, film-makers, poets and performers before a ceremonial infilling ended the project. The rectory was to be demolished and this conceptual archaeology in the tranquil garden, a space unaffected during the capital’s hundreds of years of historical change from politics, architecture, place and man, was thus turned into a site of interrogation and discussion.

So they were invited to be a part of the PEER programme and their new project, HOARDING: a fiction of accelerated urban development in four acts, will will continue the look at the politics of place in London. They are wrapping the gallery in a building-site hoarding which will become the canvas for the life of a boarded up building awaiting development.

© Annely Juda Fine Art

© Annely Juda Fine Art
Quite the opposite is happening in Annely Juda Fine Art, just off Oxford Street. Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata has transformed three floors of the unassuming building into a warren of burrows and enclosures all linked vertically via a spiral staircase — all created from timber and reclaimed builders’ pallets. Cave-like igloo formations squeeze within the gallery confines, the exterior of which are rough and abrasive with splinters but inside are a comforting and embracing space to be. The spiral staircase leads up to the heat of a rooftop skylight with the visual language of a viewing platform. Though the vantage is only of air conditioning units and utilitarian roof spaces. The staircase plunges downwards through the gallery floors two levels, but once arriving there the visitor is abruptly stopped in their tracks by a padlocked door. Trapped and having to uncoil oneself upwards.

In a reverse of DIG’s appropriation of the exterior of the gallery space, leaving the inside near-unused, Kawamata has packed his architectural exploration tightly into the space, pushing itself against the walls trying to burst out, and leaving the outside totally unmarked. But like DIG, his work exists in the place between demolition and construction and his archive of work going back to the 80s constantly refers to construction sites and always uses building industry utilitarian timber.

© Virginia Overton

Similar construction quality planks are utilised by Virginia Overton at White Cube. They are lined up the length of the large ground floor of the Mayfair space and flexed diagonally between top and bottom corners of the gallery to create a cavernous but nervous space. Each timber has weathered and aged at its own pace, and so the arc formed by each differs to its neighbour so the uniformity of repetition is lost and each timber precariously teases with inverting and collapsing. Her work is playful, but is interested in the continual compartmentalisation of space. On a more conceptual level, it could equally about the parcelling up of a city’s land for developers like across Nine Elms, or the subdivision of buildings into numerous one bed apartments. Using the most basic of building materials she breaks up the order of space and cuts it up as if a 1:1 maquette for an unannounced architectural project.
© Virginia Overton

This squeezing of two spaces from one, and in a developers’ mind squeezing ever more profit from a site, is a concern in the work of Demelza Watts who is selected for the forthcoming London Open at the Whitechapel Gallery. A graduate of Sculpture at the RCA, Watts’ work is interested in both the value of labour and the use of space. She is paying her father his normal brick-laying wage for a day’s work and in that eight hours he crafts the tallest wall possible within the confines of the gallery. This will stand as a testament to the value of labour as well as celebrating the every day material such as brick; the same brick and mortar we constantly see changing the city as we walk the streets.

© Demelza Watts

© Demelza Watts
In The London Open Watts’ brick wall will stand out against the white gallery walls, polished floor and amongst other fine art objects and images. But leave the Whitechapel and immediately the streets around are full of cranes, lorries loaded with building supplies and vast sites of vertical development. Her work seems less extraordinary or unusual here. 

Perhaps walking around the streets with heads full of Watts’ representation of manual labour’s time, seeing the visual shapes of Overton’s subdivision of space in construction sites one passes and imagining a chaotic and crowded impromptu architecture like that of Kawamata hiding behind every bland facade will make a journey through London’s increasingly uniform streets that much more exciting. Perhaps to imagine the artistic possibilities inherent in the processes and materials of what goes into dullifying and removing character from the city can stave off the despair at how the city is changing for the worse.

But there is more to art than just offering relief, and it is projects like all of these which offer a new way of looking which hopefully go some way to fighting back against the loss of space, character and idea in the city. DIG’s project, in particular, not only presents the visual conversations in the streetscape but also offers a platform for discussion and fight, which is vital.