Fictional Perspectives of Urban History

“Cities bring together culture and ideas, convert human power in to form, energy in to civilization, they are like brains directing and developing civilized life” Joel Kotkin The organism of the city is that of a distinct entity that has been shaped by social, political, economic and topographic factors. Many cities have endured periods of calamity and trauma that have significantly altered or even ended their existence. A myriad of causes have been responsible, including war, famine, pestilence, flood, fire, earthquakes and volcanoes. Often structures of monumentality, of seeming permanence and stability, there is an underlying fragility and transience that threatens the life of the urban entity. The city represents a fragile compact between the forces of nature and those of human desire and inequality.

The emotional history of the city’s life has found expression and illumination in the art forms of the societies of the time. Through Film, music, literature and visual art, individuals and groups have sought to give expression to the times and places in which their lives were lived. Defining and traumatic events are often anticipated and fictionalized in advance of their occurrence, actual events are subject to endless repetition, replaying in the memory and the media. For example the events of 1963 and 2001 in Dallas and New York are seared in to the national memory. The city exists in memory as a complex hybrid of visual impressions and forms. Impressions drawn from personal experience, film footage and literary narrative, creating an inevitable blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction. The sculptures while fictional creations, are in part documentary records, the line of truth being firmly attached to the cartographic evidence.

The sculptures created in 2012 and 2013 in this exhibition look at the city primarily from a literary perspective and comprise of the following works, Amsterdam, ‘The Fall’, looking at the Amsterdam of the 1940s and 1950s from the perspective of Albert Camus in the novel ‘The Fall’. St. Petersburg 1703 – 1963 is a work that traces the cultural mirror that the literary history of St Petersburg illuminates. This literary history takes as a starting point the poem ‘The bronze Horseman’ by Alexander Pushkin, this poem is referenced and carried forward into the twentieth century in Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero”. After the war the thread is taken up in the writings of Joseph Brodsky, his ‘A guide to a renamed city’ looks at the Leningrad of the 1950s and 60s. The sculpture is based upon a map of the great flood of 1824, the setting for the ‘Bronze Horseman’, the sculpture has been stained accordingly. The St Petersburg sculpture also includes the famous music score Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, written and performed during the terrible siege of Leningrad during the years 1941-43.
The sculpture Moscow 1812, is based upon and burnt in accordance with a map depicting the areas of Moscow that were burnt during the Napoleonic invasions in 1812. The sculpture is created from the music score of the famous 1812 overture by Tchaikovsky and includes a peculiarly prophetic quote from ‘War and Peace’ by Tolstoy.
The four London panels depict the different wards of East London during WW2. These works are created in accordance with the original bomb damage maps of wartime London. A meticulous record was kept of the damage that occurred to every street and building and the maps were colour coded to reflect the level of destruction. The finished sculptures are carefully burnt to recreate this record, with areas of total destruction detailed in the maps completely burnt away in the sculpture. The architecture of each panel is created from a text that corresponds to the individual wards. Rosie Alison’s ‘The Very thought of you’ explores the effects on familial and romantic relations as a result of wartime evacuation. The remaining three panels, based upon text from the novels by Christopher Fowler, Graham, Greene and Elizabeth Bowen, whose works center around tales of crime and espionage, highlight the criminal underworld that flourished during the war. Together these texts present a portrait of social life in London during the 1940s.

The sculptures interweave the narratives of personal and public history and place them within the mapped framework of the urban form. Events both real and imagined are anchored and placed within the architectural spaces of the city site. Fictional works set in given cities present social portraits of a city that function as an emotional mirror to the history and politics of a place and time. “The Living breathing city – its streets, its atmosphere, its smells, the rich variety of its everyday life – is something that only literature can convey”. Orhan Pamuk