October 7th 2015
Not to be confused with Johnny Cash, The Line is a sculpture trail between the Olympic Park and the O2 Stadium that roughly traces the Greenwich Meridian. It follows the course of the tidal Lee between Three Mills and Cody Dock from where it continues to North Greenwich via the Royal Victoria Dock and the Emirates Airline Cable Car. This project is an initiative of art dealer Megan Piper, in collaboration with Clive Dutton, to create an outdoor exhibition space open to residents and the visiting public; it provides the opportunity to see lesser-known works by better-known artists in a lesser-known area of London.
While it is a great opportunity to experience contemporary artworks on a day out, it is probably fair to say that none of these works was either conceived or selected because of any thematic connection with the location other than considerations of access and visibility. It would be easy to criticise the trail on the basis that it does not correspond to something that was never intended, but this should not detract from the experience of an orthodox but upmarket sculpture trail in a workaday landscape. It could be an advance guard of the metropolitan aspirations of an edgeland landscape that will sooner or later succumb to the growth of the city eastward. The forces of regeneration are incrementally at work to make this area of London more acceptable and inviting and the sculpture trail is in the vanguard, working in tandem with improvements to habitat and accessibility under the auspices of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority.
Between Three Mills and Cody Dock, the trail punctuates the Fat Walk (see preceding chapter). The immediate landscape of the path has been softened by planting undertaken by the charitable organisation Thames 21; its riverside fringe has undergone a great deal of environmental enhancement, which also serves to soften and disguise the utilitarian flood management function of the tidal channel.
The sculpture trail provides clues to a thread that draws the visitor into a hitherto uncelebrated part of East London. It is not unusual within urban regeneration programmes to use artwork to connote a sense of caring; where historically a site might have been considered hazardous to visit, artworks can create a domesticating effect, apparently making it feel cared for and therefore safer to visit.
Not so far away, on the tidal river side of the floodwall, a shopping trolley shares its final resting place with other junk. I have never having been tempted to push a shopping trolley into the river and wonder what strange urge compels anyone to do so. (I agree it is probably easier to give it a burial at sea than take it back to its supermarket of origin.) On my perambulations between Luton and Leamouth I have come across several shopping trolleys. If this is indeed a uniquely British phenomenon, it might be worthwhile listing it as a traditional custom and holding re-enactments upon set dates in the calendar year, when suitably dressed shoppers could compete to push shopping trolleys into watercourses. Of course it requires a certain amount of strength and bravado to wheel a trolley down to the river, lift it over a flood barrier and drop it in. In which context, whoever dumped the bath or even the scooter at Three Mills should be considered heroes. Before shopping trolleys, broken bedsteads were the instrument of choice, as comic songwriters Flanders and Swann celebrated in their song “The Bedstead Men”.1
Although no thematic link will have been intended, there is marvellous serendipity in the double helix tower made of shopping trolleys, “DNA DL90” by Abigail Fallis, standing right on the bank of the Lee. While this is as an allegory of the hold that consumerism has upon our society to the extent that it has become integral to our genetic make-up, its present location combined with the monumentalisation of the shopping trolley makes it doubly ironic.
The works along the way appear to be opportunist; it is not apparent that they should connect in any way, each one is a self-contained item and consequently there is sufficient distance between them to ensure that no cross-contamination of the viewing experience will happen.
Just recently a student asked me what I thought of the idea of a statue of a man looking at his mobile phone, given that the phone has given rise to a particular body language not commonplace before its use. Sadly, such an artwork already exists. Sheltering under the trees on Three Mills Green, a bronze Afro-Caribbean giant stares intently into his mobile. This work by Thomas J. Price belongs in a tradition of monumental figure sculpture and confers a profoundly statesmanlike quality to the subject.2
We now happily accept as utterly normal the spectacle of somebody clutching their ear, shouting at something and gesticulating with their free hand. In 1990, I ran a photographic workshop for artists in Zambia on behalf of NORAD (Norwegian Government Aid Agency). One day I was in a taxi going to work and spotted a young man evidently with a mobile phone to his ear. I said to the driver that I didn’t think they had a mobile network in Zambia yet. His answer was, “No it’s made of wood.”
The Line becomes a guessing game since the absence of explicit context adds its own level of confusion. At Cody Dock what at first sight is an overblown gateau set on the cropped grass turns out to be “Sensation” by Damien Hirst from the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” exhibition (Tate Gallery, 2004); it represents a cross-section of the human dermis, colour-coded like a textbook diagram. Knowledge vies with sensual pleasure when the work is experienced directly away from the promotional machinery of the gallery. It can also be in conflict or unwitting harmony with the urban streetscape when experienced out of context, to the extent that the steel girder “Work 700” by Martin Creed at the Royal Victoria Dock appears to be a part of street furniture when you lean over it to look for the art.
Aside from the directly borrowed or commissioned works, there are several others already on site that have been co-opted into The Line. These include Anthony Gormley’s “Quantum Cloud” that I first experienced when it was commissioned for the Millennium celebrations, when it stood in splendid isolation on its own pier; and as you walked past, according to your parallax relation to it, a figure magically coalesced from a cloud of steel. Now, like many of our visitor hotspots, the site has gone mad; the sculpture still exists but is dwarfed by the white pylons for the cable car and the pontoons put in place to ensure that shipping will not collide with them. The Thames Clipper jetty at north Greenwich is immediately adjacent, further cluttering the view of the work with its pontoon, canopies, timber waiting room and ticket office. In typical British fashion of never leaving well alone and where there is space, why not cram in another piece of infrastructure, the Gormley sculpture appears beleaguered and its impact siphoned away.
Just around the corner on the foreshore stands another veteran of the Millennium celebrations. This is “Slice of Reality”, the centre section of a condemned dredging ship; the bridge is still used by artist Richard Wilson as an office/drawing room while his son uses the deck below for drum practice. Other works have now joined this eclectic mix, including Alex Chinneck’s “A Bullet from a Shooting Star”, a replica of an electricity pylon precariously balanced on its tip. Commissioned by London Design Festival in collaboration with Greenwich Peninsula, this has come to stay for the time being until the vacant real estate opportunity that it occupies is realised. Until then it remains, a light-hearted but heavy-handed gag that nonetheless is an agreeable surprise when you chance upon it. Perhaps this seems an unnecessarily jaundiced view, but I have to admit to severe misgivings over the relationship between the longevity of art in a public place and the job it is expected to do. In this respect, were it not so outrageously compromised by the infrastructure that now surrounds it, I would say that the sculpture by Antony Gormley alone retains the power to intrigue and if I were consultant for the site, I would recommend its immediate relocation to where it can function as it was originally intended.