Togetherness: Notes on Outrage
9 September - 4 November 2017
Review by Trevor H. Smith
In a converted Cornish farmstead situated just ten miles from the southernmost point of mainland Britain, a group show, Togetherness: Notes on Outrage, curated by London gallery, South Kiosk, that started out in London in the summer offers a considered response to – and celebration of – architecture critic Ian Nairn’s 1955 edition of Architectural Review, entitled Outrage. Nairn, who proposed that an objective critique of architecture should apply to every square foot of British soil, and encompass everything from streetlights to power stations, coined the term ‘subtopian’ to describe the shift in architectural planning that had seen city outskirts across the UK become near identical, from one location to the next. He described subtopia as ‘the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern.’
Perched on a bench browsing the exhibition pamphlet I discover I’m sitting on Joseph Townshend’s ‘Everything you Need to Know to Build a Mock Tudor Bench’ (2016). Constructed from Replica Wood which is used on modern day mock-tudor property, this work also signals everything we need to know about how we should feel about the manufactured landscapes discussed in this exhibition, and it’s a stance backed up by the rest of the work being shown here. The exhibition space is dominated by photographic works from Felicity Hammond and Polly Tootal, along with Shaun C. Badham’s research project, while the literature squarely places Townshend’s bench, and video works by five other artists, in a supporting position.
Felicity Hammond’s ‘Land’s End’ (2017) is a large scale photographic collage that takes its title and composition from a series of watercolour paintings by JMW Turner c.1834. ‘Land’s End’ is disturbingly plausible; images of land and sea in varying scales are manipulated to create a single dizzying vista that juxtaposes the wildness of a coastal headland with industrial machinery and the flotsam and jetsam of urban development. Hammond fears for what will become of our untouched landscapes once the UK has departed from the EU, and whether planning regulations will be relaxed, engendering further the spread of subtopian architecture.
‘Image #57250’, by Polly Tootal, covers an unashamedly bland suburban sprawl. Terracotta brick meets beige render meets mid-brown rooftop, and repeat. Tootal’s photographs are of real locations that could be anywhere in England; ‘Image #57250’ includes the unfinished edge of an urban development and is loaded with the implication that before long the infinite shades of green that surround it will be further encroached upon. Nairn’s own sentiment is well-illustrated here, ‘(Subtopia’s) symptom will be that the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.’
The final wall of the interior exhibition space at Kestle Barton is given to Shaun C. Badham’s recent Goldsmith’s MFA research project ‘MORNING’ (2017), which is presented here in extensive detail, from weighty preliminary research folders including the topographical history of the landscape that became Laindon, Essex, a town that would later be incorporated into the Basildon New Town development. Also included is the artist’s own publication on the topic, and a series of watercolour studies of children’s climbing frames that became the focus of the project. Badham’s contribution holds a space in the grounds here, too, in the form of his recreation of the Moon Probe, a 1973 children’s climbing frame that looked to the space race for inspiration. Moon Probe is exemplary of these structures which, although their utopian intentions reflected the New Town ideology of the time, nevertheless fell into decay as rust took hold and they were slowly removed from the urban landscape. Badham’s version is painted in dayglow colours and labelled ‘Not suitable for climbing’, marking its shift in function from climbing frame to sculpture.
Although the video works in Notes on Outrage have been curated into a supporting role, that does not diminish their contribution to the overall feel of the show. Generally speaking, the films are much more forthright in offering their stance on subtopian architecture. Mark Jenkin combines flickering 16mm and Super8 film with a scraping industrial soundtrack for ‘If This is No-Ones Then It’s Ours’ (2013). Jenkin’s overlaid audio that conveys his own sadness over an encroaching subtopian aesthetic that threatens to swallow up the landscape in which he lives and works. The audio-visual antithesis to Jenkin’s work, ‘Catherine Yass’s ‘Descent’ (2002), uses a single, descending tracking shot to take the viewer on a journey from the top of a high-rise development, through a fog so thick that one’s perception of depth is manipulated into abstraction (assisted by the footage being played upside down), to the construction site below, replete with scraped earth and metal fencing, safety signage and workers in high-visibility jackets.
Jamie George’s film, ‘Throwing Up Pulling Down’ (2013), leads the viewer, via a series of tracking shots, through the interior of a renovation project which could easily be Catherine Yass’s high-rise development, thirty years on. Bare wiring, disused and abused toilet cubicles, and warped MDF speak volumes on abandonment and any single-use culture we may have been party to; the film invokes a kind of washing of the hands after a subtopian property has outlived its purpose and become mildewed, chipped, and tired.
In Simon Barker and Jason Wood’s ‘Always (Crashing)’ (2008), a car ascends and descends through a deserted multi-storey car park, sometimes efficiently, other times playfully, but at all times reminding us of the necessarily repetitive aesthetic of this functional structure. This is one of the few works here, another is Tom Crawford’s ‘Me, the Boy, and Ravenside’ (2016), that considers the occupants of the space in question. Crawford’s film has the feel of an audio work; the greater part of its content resides in the spoken narrative that reveals a litany of contexts in which the urban, suburban, and semi-rural overlap. Its message is one of hostility towards, and returned by, the built environment, as played out in its final grave encounter.
Togetherness: Notes on Outrage firmly backs Ian Nairn’s assertion that The Site is being removed of character, and replaced with a universal blandness. Who wouldn’t at least partially agree – must everything now be mid-tone to get through planning? From an architectural point of view Nairn’s outrage remains vital, and valid, were he alive today I’m sure he’d find no shortage of champions, though one would hope that the occupants of subtopia might offer a defence, for doesn’t the character of a place rest as much on the shoulders of its residents as it does on its architecture?