Last week, I started a conversation about art in unexpected places. After traveling to London this summer, I realized that encountering the unexpected is one of the perpetual joys of the art world—and it is one that I hope the Postal Plaza Gallery will bring to its audiences.
There are many ways, of course, in which art can confound our expectations. This summer, though, a specific theme kept returning: unexpected places. In this week’s blog post, I want to share my experience of an exhibition in a very unusual place: a parking garage.
The Peckham Rye Multi-Storey Car Park is not a glamorous place. In fact, it’s quite hard to find, disused and tucked away, off a busy main street and behind a movie theater in a part of London not well known for its tourist traffic. But for some years now, since 2007, it has been host to “Bold Tendencies,” an exhibition of large-scale sculpture by artists from around the world. Sculpture is installed on levels 7-10, and the top level, open to the air, also hosts Frank’s Cafe, a pub that takes full advantage of the car park’s breathtaking views of downtown London.
As I walked through the exhibition, I was impressed by the ways in which curators and artists made positive use of the rather overwhelming structural constraints of parking garage architecture. This year’s show included video, painting, architectural design, performance, and sculpture, all of which engaged wittily with the surrounding space, availability (or not) of light and weather, and aesthetics of the parking garage.
One of the first installations I encountered was Steven Claydon’s “It In Transit (Is The Thing Itself).” Claydon’s re-creation of a medieval tapestry plays wittily on the monumental architecture of castle versus parking garage, as well as on medieval transportation and entertainment (horses, hunting, and the decorative arts) in relation to modern ones (cars, movie theaters, and retail). I was struck by the similarity of architectures: in both castles and parking garages, the emphasis tends to be inward, and daylight is scarce. Claydon’s piece is also aware of its larger environs: the storage containers in the foreground make overt reference to the transitory history of Peckham, which has been central to international shipping and human migrations over the past thousand years. Claydon’s own statement about the piece elaborates upon this history.
Unexpectedly delightful, this rooftop garden is a defiant refusal of the post-industrial landscape that is so visible past the parking garage’s concrete edges. A re-creation of director Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness, on the southeast coast of England, it insinuates sculpture and plants over former parking spaces. Like the entire exhibition, “The Derek Jarman Garden for Peckham,” refuses to be contained by our class- and geography-based expectations. Rooftop gardens aren’t just for penthouses, and art isn’t just for galleries. A list of plants is included with the garden’s object label.
“My father says that there is only one perfect view,” says George Emerson in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room With a View. “The view of the sky straight over our heads, and that all of these views on earth are but bungled copies of it.” At the top of a parking garage, in the open air, we are closer to that perfect view—and Lakomy calls attention to it with his simple aluminum frame and single burning bulb. The stark lines of the sculpture are echoed by the architecture of the parking garage to which it is attached and to the painted lines of parking spaces. As time passes, and day turns into night, the entire sculpture is also transformed.
In a different setting—an interior gallery setting, for example—Lakomy’s sculpture would be a simple formal exercise, relating sculpted angles to built ones. In Forster’s novel, George continues: “Also that men fall into two classes—those who forget views and those who remember them, even in small rooms.” Outlining the view and dimly echoing the sun, Lakomy’s room is a room that doesn’t shelter us from this perfect view. Quite the opposite: it demands that we remember it even when we retreat to our small rectilinear spaces.
Moving through “Bold Tendencies,” one is forced to move along the path a car would take, slowly circling enormous, canted platforms of concrete. One’s view is always partial, and the way Ruth Proctor’s “I See You Liking Everything” is installed, the colorful bunting—in the rough shape of glasses or a bandit’s mask—is the first thing you see. Waving cheerily in the breeze (which was particularly enthusiastic the afternoon I was there), the bunting invites the viewer to look both at it and through it, to the view of the city beyond.
It’s incredibly loud, when the wind picks up, and the slightly aggressive sound of plastic slapping against itself is the first clue that the piece isn’t, perhaps, as innocent as it seems. Turning the corner, the second half of the diptych is revealed: myriad tire marks, as though someone has been practicing doughnuts in a very dedicated way, circle the surface of the lot. It is the remains of a performance, and relates ambiguously to the bunting. From here the view is not the bright vision of downtown, but rather the disused warehouse architecture of Peckham’s industrial past. In the context of extended Royal celebration (first the Jubilee, and this summer the Royal Baby), this post-industrial backdrop heightened the juxtaposition of celebratory trimmings with the marks of ennui and youthful alienation.
In an equally pointed way, Jimmy Merris’s “Awesome Tapes From Africa Mate” contrasts the skyline of London—from St. Paul’s Cathedral, to the contemporary icons of the Shard and the Gherkin—with the reality of post-colonial immigration and cultural exchange. Peckham is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in London, with significant populations of recent emigrants from South Asia, the Middle East, West Africa, Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Caribbean. This cultural diversity and the economic stresses of large-scale immigration have caused tension throughout contemporary British politics—but Merris’s sculpture rejects a didactic tone in favor of simple social engagement. Every Thursday evening while the exhibition is up, Merris is inviting people to hang out in the car, have a beer, and listen to some of the tapes. The tapes were brought to Merris’s attention by Brian Shimkovitz, who discovered the local music scene in Ghana while there on a Fulbright scholarship and started a blog called “Awesome Tapes From Africa.”
Part 3 of this series takes me to a cemetery and columbarium.