The casual, anthropomorphic metaphors of city residents are often confined to the internal organs of an imagined body: one either travels to the heart of a metropolis for its centre, or down, via an intestinal subway system, into its bowels. In London: The Biography (2000) maverick biographer, novelist and critic Peter Ackroyd encouraged the reader to envisage the city as an entire human form. Whether considering this figure as a healthy giver of life or a ‘swollen and dropsical giant’, Ackroyd plots a route through the vivid urban landscape of London’s built environment. For his recent solo exhibition ‘From the Library of Dr London’, Adam Dant used the city-as-body metaphor to create maps of London, but also of Zurich, Istanbul, Monaco, Tokyo, Manhattan and Paris. Shifting perspective from the molly houses and grimy cobblestone close-ups of Ackroyd, the British artist’s views are from above, recasting parks, districts and roads as body parts, organs and bones. The result is a kind of cartographical satire, one that ranges over the same subversive landscape as James Gillray’s political caricature maps and Steve Bell’s long-running Guardian cartoon strip If…
Like General Idea’s ‘1970 Miss General Idea Pageant’, or Charles Avery’s ongoing work on ‘Onomatopoeia Island’ (begun in 2005), Dant has created a fictional narrative to generate the production of his body-map works. Each of the nine, framed drawings depict giant, antiquated books opened at double-page spreads, across which the city-as-body is illustrated. The tomes have been taken from the library of Dr. London, an enigmatic figure and antiquarian futurist, created by Dant, who uses drafting techniques and cartographic tropes from the past to capture an absurdist vision of our urbanized present.
The works were made during the London 2012 Olympics and, in response to the heady optimism of those events, there is a raw undercurrent to their absurd surface. Perhaps the single most prominent political gesture of Dant’s endeavour is that cities are not portrayed as heroic figures: the city-men are pathetic, sickly looking creatures, flayed and exposed like subjects arranged for an écorché. In From the Library of Dr London (all works 2012), landmarks of central London and its East End are distributed amongst the exposed vital organs of a lank-necked, wide-eyed cadaver. Manhattan Dissected features four similarly flayed corpses, each with a different level of anatomy exposed. The symbolism of a dead city is clear. Both Manhattan and London have been transformed by new developments, and while each city trumpets its uniqueness around the world, urban reality, for citizens traversing soulless developments of glass and steel, can seem as lifeless as a limp carcass.
The psychological effect of the city-as-body image is that it encourages the viewer to consider the city of London as a single entity. Instead of the isolated borough snapshots currently in vogue (as in Zadie Smith’s N.W. or John Lanchester’s Capital, both of which were published earlier this year), the corporeal city stands together. Unfortunately, neat sectoral divisions of London hold sway in the collective conscious. Thus psychologically divided and unchallenged by the populous, vast sectors of the city are regenerated into privatized nowhere lands, and the blank architectural model of Canary Wharf is rolled out across the capital.
Elsewhere, Dant’s anthropomorphic project leads to a more playful, if slightly essentialist, engagement with his source material. Shunga Metro reinterprets Tokyo’s subway map as a series of sexually interlinked, top-knotted men and geishas, and Hellmouth Zurich pictures the city as a giant, bat-winged demon. But it is the flayed image of London in From the Library of Dr. London that lingers in the mind as a bleak simile for the capital. Outside Hales Gallery’s Shoreditch space, rows of stacked shipping containers have been transformed into temporary retail outlets – a reminder that money has historically been the city’s driving force, and transforming the metropolis into a giant wall-less shopping precinct, with no inch of land spared, is a sure-fire way to guarantee its circulation today. As an antidote to the consume-at-all-costs ethos saturating most corners of the capital, From the Library of Dr. London reminds us London is still in need of a post-2011 riots, post-2012 Olympics post-mortem.