in Frieze | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

East Side Story

Walking the streets of Rodinsky's Whitechapel

in Frieze | 09 SEP 99

In contemporary British culture, the East End is a Kingdom of Narnia, which can be reached simply by catching the tube to Liverpool Street and walking to Brick Lane. From Peter Ackroyd's seemingly illimitable readings of Hawksmoor churches and Jewish myths to what one critic called the 'dark space' inside the concrete shell of Rachel Whiteread's House (1993), the East End is a mystery waiting for interpretation. But the discovery of the area's mythic legibility has gone hand-in-hand with the colonisation of the East End by the affluent. The old docks and factories have become flats, and their new inhabitants consume all kinds of fictions celebrating the richness of what might otherwise seem a fairly dingy part of London.

When Artangel published a book on Whiteread's House, they asked the novelist, poet and essayist Iain Sinclair to contribute a chapter. It was the logical choice - Sinclair is a cannibalistic savourer of East End narratives, and the stories generated about House were as nutty as Bow Council could make them. But Sinclair's essay in the book reads as a thinly-veiled attack in which he regards Whiteread's work as poncy middle-class art.

Sinclair is both guru and satirist of the new mysticism that surrounds the East End, and the exploration of the David Rodinsky cult that he recently orchestrated for Artangel was a consummation of his black art. Rodinsky's Whitechapel (1999), a walk, series of films, book and street plan, was Artangel's greatest popular success since House, generating huge amounts of publicity for what appeared to be an elegiac excavation of the East End. In fact it was a parodic double of House, employing the same iconography of death, ghosts and hidden chambers. Sinclair proposed to commemorate a room full of secrets, an occult space even more arcane than Whiteread's house in Bow. The room was one he had already written about, and his evocative description of Rodinsky's room in his novel Downriver (1991) may even have been a source for Whiteread's monument - but where Whiteread grieves, Sinclair sneers.

Rodinsky was caretaker of the Hassidic synagogue at 19 Princelet street, off Brick Lane. He vanished without trace one day in 1969. When his flat at the top of the building was broken open it turned out to contain writings in Hebrew and Arabic, a variety of bizarre lists, an annotated London A-Z and cigarette packets marked with Chinese characters. Rodinsky has since been celebrated as a vanished cabalist, the holder of the key to London's mysteries. He has come to stand for the lost world of the Jewish East End and even for the vanished millions of the Holocaust. But when you walk the area according to Sinclair's instructions, looking out for signs of Rodinsky, the narrative melts before your eyes.

For this project, Sinclair collaborated with Rachel Lichtenstein, an artist and Whitechapel walk guide who has researched Rodinsky's life more thoroughly than anyone. She presented her version of the project as an act of Kaddish, of ritual mourning, but the walks staged by Sinclair on Sunday afternoons were something else again, a Borgesian joke disguised as history.

On a Sunday lunchtime, Sinclair drew out the burghers of North London, a similar crowd to that which trekked to Whiteread's House. We listened to his introductory talk in respectful silence, full of anticipation for the cabalistic mysteries and heartbreaking histories into which we believed we were about to be initiated. Sinclair's walk was planned as an odyssey around Spitalfields, triangulating three islands - three locations where there were films to watch. He told us the story of Rodinsky in the fantastic rhythms that structure his writing: gobbets of mythopoeic ranting subsuming the local histories of the professional nostalgists; staccato delivery of bad advice; Ripperlogy in small doses; prose as remorseless as a pump action shotgun. It really is a great style.

We were sent out with photocopied maps to retrace his steps and visit the locations at which he had engineered memory installations. The first stop was a house in Redchurch Street, next door to Modern Art Inc., whose owners had gone on holiday and allowed Artangel to set up a TV in their roof garden. Nice house. You passed through their bedroom, with a yoga manual on the mantelpiece and a lovely array of clothes arranged on wooden pallets, then, having absorbed this object lesson in interior design, squatted on the roof with its glorious view to watch a film about a vanished Jew. The sun hit the screen and only vague outlines of things were discernible. On the soundtrack, Lichtenstein told us how she tracked Rodinsky's movements across London.

I was enjoying myself. It was a lovely afternoon to be doing this. But when I got to a hotel room above the Shiraz restaurant in Brick Lane and met some people who had walked the other way, they seemed frustrated. 'The films are terrible', said one woman. Someone tried to explain that they were meant to be grainy and odd. The down-at-heel hotel room possessed a sad atmosphere of transience and solitude. On screen, the tower of a mental hospital in Dagenham where Rodinsky's sister was incarcerated and died, materialised and vanished as Sinclair walked towards it along a motorway.

Down Fournier Street, under Old Spitalfields Market, we sat in the dark on bits of sacking in the cellar of the Magpie Bookshop and waited for the video projection to start. This film took us with Rodinsky to places where he liked to go on long walks. We ended up in a park where the camera - that of filmmaker Chris Petit - lingered on fountains that turned into abstract cascades. Beautiful, hypnotic, this last film took the poor pilgrim further than ever from the story of David Rodinsky.

The more frustrated the walkers became in their quest for a vanished Jew - led on by the promise of a good story and a cabalistic secret - the better the walk worked. It became a detour. Like his endlessly digressive writing, Sinclair's walk acted not as an elaboration but as an avoidance of the Rodinsky myth. His collaboration with Lichtenstein had a cruel quality: she was as much his stooge as his associate. She represented straight storytelling, the kind that generates acres of publicity and made this event such a hit. But Sinclair's walk didn't take us anywhere near Rodinsky or his room. It took us all around the houses - fun, but pointless. What did you expect? Rodinsky's room contains no secret but a disconnection from the sane routines of city life, a cutting loose from common sense and the drawing of a connection between reading and madness. Sinclair has shrunk the house that could not be entered into an empty room signifying nothing.