BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 02 APR 06
Featured in
Issue 98

Daniel Roth

BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 02 APR 06

Beneath the city streets of Peckham once ran rivers and streams. The most significant of these, the River Peck, gave the area its name, although it was paved over and subsequently dried up when the area grew from a rural hamlet into a suburb of London in the 19th century. Daniel Roth’s installation The Well (2006) tapped into this buried history and plumbed it into sources such as Nicholas Barton’s book The Lost Rivers of London (1992), a 13th-century subterranean church in Ethiopia and Ingmar Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring (1960). These contact points were acknowledged along with other historical and fantastical images in a concise and intriguing visual essay on the gallery wall, clearly outlining Roth’s frame of reference for the work.
In the centre of the gallery space squatted a large bunker-like structure whose high walls, made of loamy rocks, contained no windows or other openings. From these walls emerged three pipes. Two of them produced a constant flow of dark liquid that gurgled and splashed into receptacles beneath, before being directed back into the wall of the bunker. On the other side a brass pipe ran out at ground level, then up and around the walls of the space, splitting into tributaries that eventually disappeared back into the white walls of the gallery. This, it seemed, was the eponymous well, and an adjacent square pool containing a similarly murky liquid on the floor was its water table.

This mysterious substance that the pipes circulated around the gallery was quite unlike the nourishing waters that must once have constituted the Peck; it hinted instead at a stagnant and possibly toxic substance that brought to mind the grime of the late Industrial Revolution rather than the Arcadian meadows that had preceded it. Its darkness also emphasized its blood-like qualities and the work’s latent allusions to the corporeal qualities of the building and the city. In a vitrine in the centre of the space the cast of a man’s back was draped like a flayed skin over a metal armature, which was also connected to the system of pipes around the room. Feeder pipes from the armature fixed onto the inside of the skin, apparently responsible for the strange rash forming on its surface, which blotchily depicted an indecipherable plan or map, possibly of a network of pipes or tunnels.

Both the body and the building suffered from similar scarring – Roth’s fine line drawings covered large areas of the walls like spreading cracks in plaster. Three-dimensional architectural plans accelerated outwards, then were lost in the outlines of fungal, crystalline and starburst forms that engulfed them. Roots and arteries echoed the brass piping that plugged into the walls on which the drawings sat. Roth seemed to be describing an exchange of sorts: a relationship in which the physiognomies of the city’s inhabitants directly informed its growth, and they in turn echoed the city’s secrets on the surface of their own bodies. This symbiosis is alluded to in the subtitle of Barton’s book on London’s lost rivers: ‘A Study of their Effects upon London and Londoners, and the Effects of London and Londoners upon Them’.

Roth is a yarn-spinner, stalking imaginative spaces between history and fantasy, fact and speculation. The degree to which we, as an audience, are prepared to indulge his tall tales is determined largely by the way we perceive the tone of their telling. His deployment of diverse visual languages frustrates this judgement; by mixing stylized semi-abstract drawings with documentary photographs from the local area and a semi-illusionistic well (polystyrene rocks but real running water) Roth makes it hard for us to gauge the seriousness of his propositions or the way in which he expects us to entertain them. For instance, despite the allusions to local history and a press release that states that Roth’s bunker is ‘rumoured’ to conceal the well, a map of London’s ‘lost rivers’ on the wall shows the Peck to be at least a mile away from the gallery.

Roth's pet motif – that of the tunnel (or pipe) – allows him to invent or imply metaphorical (and frequently actual) links between subjects, however distant or unlikely. This approach lends him the air of a pub conspiracy theorist whose active imagination produces an engaging stream of associations, but who becomes less entertaining later in the evening when he begins to insist a little too aggressively on the veracity of his story.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.