Laura Oldfield Ford
Hales Gallery, London, UK
2013 has arrived quicker than we expected. For Londoners even a year ago, the dateline ‘2013’ evoked a period after-the-goldrush: the come-down following the euphoria of the London Olympics. Laura Oldfield Ford’s collections of drawings at Hales Gallery – titled ‘London 2013, Drifting Through the Ruins’ – celebrates and memorializes the scurf regions of the East End which the Olympic development programme is systematically destroying. ‘The London I conjure up in these drawings is imbued with a sense of mourning’, Ford has said. ‘These are the liminal zones where the free party rave scene once illuminated the bleak swathes of marshland and industrial estates.’ Yet her drawings are now also an ironic work of mourning for the very Olympic project that Ford opposes. Now that the credit crunch has led inevitably to a recession, the Games seem more like a poisoned chalice than a glittering prize, a relic of – and monument to – a rampant finance capitalism that has retreated (no doubt only temporarily) into a depressive deflation. In many of Ford’s drawings, the vast financial necropolises of Canary Wharf preside over the landscape. However, in early 2009, with finance the object of popular anger, the high-rises do not seem as imperiously forbidding as they once did. The 2012 hangover has set in even before the party has happened, with Tessa Jowell, the government minister for the Games, notoriously asking: ‘Had we known what we know now, would we have bid for the Olympics? Almost certainly not.’ We’ve reached 2013 without ever getting to 2012; there are ruins even before the OIympic village has been built.
The drawings which Ford has produced for ‘London 2013, Drifting Through the Ruins’ are part of an ongoing project, much of which is collected in her cut-and-paste psychogeographic fanzine Savage Messiah, all ten issues of which are also displayed here. In form and content, Ford’s work deliberately echoes 1970s and ‘80s anarcho-punk para-art. The photorealist militancy of Gee Vaucher, who produced the record covers and posters for punk band Crass, is perhaps the most obvious stylistic precedent, yet Ford’s work is far from pastiche or homage. It derives much of its power from the very contemporary urban struggles that it documents and contributes to. ‘I regard my work as diaristic; the city can be read as a palimpsest, of layers of erasure and overwriting’, Ford has said. ‘The need to document the transient and ephemeral nature of the city is becoming increasingly urgent as the process of enclosure and privatisation continues apace.’ With their lovingly reproduced junk-strata, overgrowing vegetation and Tarkovsky-esque abandoned factories, this work constitutes a direct riposte to the slick digital images which the Olympic Delivery Authority has pasted up in the now heavily policed, restricted and surveilled Lee valley. Now that the recession is certain to force a downsizing of the games, these CGI murals (pictured below), with their cheery consumer-citizenry walking next to a River Lee cleansed of algae, have changed their ontological status; instead of being projections of what is to come, they have been downgraded into an unintentionally melancholic art – virtual images of formerly possible worlds. Iain Sinclair, another dogged opponent of the 2012 project, has called the Olympic development site ‘a fault line between the virtual and the actual’. Like Sinclair, Ford understands that aesthetics and architecture are directly political here. At Hales Gallery Ford sets one version of urban poetics – in which brutalism co-exists with dereliction – against the hygienic, hyper-bright spaces projected by late-capitalist development, where the future contracts into the short term, and all history is PhotoShopped into a manicured ‘heritage’.
Collage is central to Ford’s method, indeed, the whole of this exhibition is perhaps best seen viewed as an unfinished collage, which – like the city – is constantly reconfiguring itself. Ford colours and graffitis her own drawings, treating them like urban walls, as surfaces to be decorated and defaced. Macro- and micro-narratives proliferate tuberously between the drawings; spidery slogans recur; figures migrate through various versions of the city, sometimes trapped inside the drearily glossy spaces imagined by advertising and regeneration propaganda, sometimes free to drift. Ford’s city is the site of the kind of ontological and temporal war that rages throughout the fiction of William Burroughs: a struggle over the nature of reality between the spectres of speculation and the ghosts of unrealized utopias.
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