Thursday, October 17, 2013

Photo by Hywel Williams © 2006 (taken from
The ebb and flow of the Thames Estuary has always captivated and inspired artists and writers. An exhibition currently on show at the Museum of London Docklands, due to finish on the 27th October 2013, captures this fascinating interzone, focusing on the poetic psycho-geography of the winding river as it meets the English Channel. From the WWII paranoia of the Maunsell Forts, their decay and erosion captured by a blogger living in isolation in one of the forts, to the Bow Gamelan Ensemble utilising the semi-industrial zone of the Rainham Barges, Estuary captures the existential reaction to this powerfully dramatic segment of land, with its saltmarshes and mudflats, the river winding through desolate vast vistas both physically and in the mind. Along the way are captured the flotsam and jetsam of the river’s journey in Gayle Chong Kwan’s The Golden Tide, capturing the detritus and junk left over, whether condoms, food packets, cocaine wrappers or needles – the human imprint. As the Thames winds through Essex to the North Sea, the exhibition captures the ghostly semi-urban feel of the area, full of factories, wind farms, and sewage-treatment centres, like something out of the landscape of Tarkovsky’s Stalker
Fans of industrial music will like the footage of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble in action in 1985, on site at Rainham, captured in Jane Thorburn’s short film 51º 29’.9” North - 0º11’ East, Rainham Barges (the title a reference to the map grid reference of the site, with the ‘gamelan’ referring to the Malaysian percussive instrument). Surrounded by abandoned concrete barges, the trio of percussionist Paul Burwell, performance artist Anne Bean, and sculptor Richard Wilson are filmed frequently nearly submerged in water, utilising everything solid floating around them for percussive effect. They’re also captured sending sparks flying with various machinery while on dry land, making an unholy racket along the way, in a nod – conscious or otherwise – to industrial music.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, William Raban’s Thames Film - shot in 1986 and narrated in a dream-like poetic prose by John Hurt - starts at Tower Bridge before making its way (via tantalising shots of the pre-Canary Wharf Docklands) to the sea, taking in power stations, ports and Canvey Island seaside resort. The calm, hypnotic ebb and flow of the sea is also captured in Horizon (Five Pounds A Belgian), in which a camera in a wide static position captures the sea off Margate in different weather conditions, the sky filled with different hues and shades of dark, casting shadows on the waves. Occasionally kite-surfers and golfers enter the frame, before amiably disappearing off-screen.
But the real find is Stephen Turner’s Seafort Project, in which Tuner took up residence alone in 2005 in the Shivering Seafort, one of the Maunsell Forts built in the Second World War as a deterrent to German aircraft using the river as a navigation aid. These huge turrets still rise today out of the sea near Whitstable in dramatic fashion, but have essentially been abandoned for seventy years, with the Port of London Authority up until 1992 maintaining a gauge to measure the state of the tide. The time span he chose to spend in the fort – thirty-six days – was deliberately set to correspond with the tour of duty that military personnel spent in the forts during WWII.
Communicating to the outside world via a blog and webcam, captured in the exhibition on two large screens (one for text and the other for images), the installation captures the sheer solipsist claustrophobia and isolation of the forts, surrounded by rotting decay and rusting machinery as they face the elements. Accompanying images show parts of machinery, images of birds resting on the side of the forts, barely legible old letters, and holes in peeling walls. The impression is of a man slowly going insane, yet he finds things to do with his time: in an environment of steel and concrete, he manages to nurture some life by growing an herb garden.
Meanwhile, the waves beneath him lap endlessly as the English Sea opens up. From there, the current makes its way out into the Atlantic Ocean.