London Bridge is (not) Falling Down
Artipoeus visits Jennifer Abessira’s installation, “Don’t Think Twice,” at London Bridge Station in London, England.
Listen to this article on Soundcloud:
Someone told me recently that my habit of following a train of thought all the way to the end is self-indulgent. In short, that I think too much. Maybe that’s true, but what am I supposed to do? Let others think for me?
Mind the gap.
Last month I went to an art opening of an exhibit that was created in response to the campaign posters of the AfD — Germany’s far right, nationalist party that carries whiffs of nazism, and who, in the end, for the first time won a seat in Parliament. The art opening included a discussion with the artist, Rob Blake, who invited his air-quote philosopher friend to introduce the topic of discussion, which for some reason, was only remotely related to the actual exhibit.
The work on display was interesting, and the philosophy behind it: five minimalist, found-object sculptures that all looked like they could be used as medieval weapons: a catapult, a ram, a bollard. In fact, they could: they were designed to launch pink paint at the offensive campaign posters, medieval weapons to fight the medieval minds of the AfD, the alt-right, and the rise of fascism.
So here we were, a few days before the German elections, gathered around a bunch of medieval political weapons, in a room anchored by four guys in their 30s explaining things to each other. One of them said, Growing up means accepting life isn’t fair. Another one said, Racism was started 2000 years ago by the Roman Empire. Another one said, Northern Europeans have no indigenous culture.
That’s when I left. I was… tired. I was still recovering from the weekend before, which I had spent celebrating the 40th anniversary of the magical life and spectacular death of Marc Bolan, founder of the 1970s band T.Rex, father of glam rock and godfather of punk. For this, I had to go to England, to the London Bop.
England, of course, also being home to The Who, Christopher Marlowe, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Francis Bacon, and the Clash.
And the Magna Carta.
And… and wait, what was that other thing?
Oh yeah: the English language.
No indigenous culture, eh?
Mind the gap.
Iflew into Heathrow Airport for the first time since 1999, and didn’t recognize a thing — it’s so new and shiny and futuristic, I felt like Jason Bourne, trying to find.. the exit. I was going straight to the London Bop, the annual gathering of T.Rex fans and family, for a night of reunion and revelry and rock & roll.
But I had to take a cab to the Bop because the Tube would take too long, and also… well… there had just been a terrorist attack.
This was the sixth terrorist attack this year. This time, a couple guys exploded a bomb on the District Line at Parsons Green station, injuring 29 people. In Berlin, getting this news on my social media feeds, it looked the city was shutting down: the terror threat level was raised to critical, and Prime Minister Theresa May said that “The public will see more armed police on the transport network and on our streets … This a proportionate and sensible step which will provide extra reassurance and protection.”
But my taxi driver had a different perspective. I asked him whether security was tighter, but he said it was all pretty much the same. The city hadn’t shut down, there was no national day of mourning, the tube was running as usual, for better or worse. London Bridge was not, in fact, falling down.
AtLondon Bridge Station just in front of the St Thomas Street entrance, are 75 steel bollards, those short posts you see along curbs on busy streets, around the entrances to outdoor markets, pedestrian-only streets, government buildings, airports… and train stations.
These little guys have been used for traffic control since the Roman Empire(you know, back when racism was invented). You’ve seen them — they’re everywhere. They define the pedestrian walkways from traffic paths, regulate the flow of traffic and, nowadays, also stop vehicles from ramming into public buildings and areas, and blowing up.
The idea is to secure the perimeter, the first line of defense against a vehicular attack, specifically vehicles loaded with explosives. They are not placed right in front of an entrance, because the more distance that can be placed in front of the protected structure and a potential blast, the greater the security for the building and all the people inside.
Sort of like the outer walls of a fortress. Or a moat.
At London Bridge Station, 72 of the bollards — plain, brushed, reinforced-steel anti-ram posts — have been wrapped with the photographs of French artist Jennifer Abessira. Installed in cooperation with Marine Tanguy and MTArt, Network Rail, the engineering company Costain and Team London Bridge, the photographs — some treated with paint and digital marker — are designed to “brighten up” the dull gray bollards and cheer Londoners on their commutes.
The photos are uncluttered for the most part — some stills from older films, some aerial shots of London, some simple staged shoots in harsh lighting and saturated color. On some of them, the artist has painted simplistic, colorful decoration; one of my favorites, she’s colored in the river Thames in pink and dotted the sky with floating yellow palm trees. On another, she adds polka-dots. The images range from stills from 1960s movies to the overshine of 1980s school portraits to the flatly lit, saturated stagings found in ads for moody hipster clothing. Walking by quickly, I think it’s easy to dismiss the work as probable advertising. You have to slow down and stop and really take a look at it to see what it is, and discover the story it tells.
My taxi ride to the London Bop from Heathrow was a long one, and my taxi driver and I had a long conversation to fill up the time. He told me about what it was like moving from Pakistan, setting up a life in London with his wife and their two kids, and I told him what is was like moving from America to France and then Germany. We shared a laugh over how stressful the first two years in a country are, the ideas you bring with you and the reality that replaces them, the mistakes you make in your new culture, the silly things you say in your new language, the friends you leave behind and the new ones you find.
My German isn’t good enough yet to talk to the cab drivers in Berlin. It was great to finally have a good, long taxi chat.
Abessira’s images on the bollards play with the perspective of the viewer and interact cleverly with the environment. A deep blue vase of violets is offered up towards Guy’s Hospital across the street.
A photo of a chalky piece of street art blends perfectly with the St Thomas Street pavement if you’re at the right angle.
A photo of an orange construction cone is placed at a direct angle to a little plot under construction on the corner.
If you’re facing the entrance to London Bridge Station, a hand holds up a book of nature photography, turned to a photo of a wild lynx about to snatch a white rabbit in its jaws, the black trees in the photo blending into the gaping black of the station’s entrance.
Another one of my favorites: a map, which to me strikes me as gently teasing the tourists who have managed to wander over here from Bankside or the Borough Market, following a trail that for most tourists end at the Golden Hinde, or even as early as the George Inn, the pub where Shakespeare drank.
“Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety” — Henry V
That was Shakespeare, by the way. And the pub is real, although it’s seen better days, definitely not for the faint-hearted — you have to make some elbow room, and the food is just so-so. I could go on. But I don’t want to set your teeth on edge.
Speaking of Shakespeare. And indigenous culture.
I like Abessira’s work on the bollards… for the most part. I mean, there’s 72 of them, so I think it’s reasonable to not like every single one.
Abessira calls the work “Don’t Think Twice,” and I don’t know if this is meant to act like that old parlour trick: you know, you tell people “don’t think about elephants”, to get them to think about elephants, and then you say “you’re thinking about elephants now, aren’t you?” and everyone laughs, going along with the cliche. But that trick doesn’t work on everyone. Whenever that’s been said to me, my internal response is almost always, “ok,” because I wasn’t thinking about elephants anyway and frankly it’s just easier and more comfortable to go back to what I was already thinking about.
That’s not true. I don’t really think about gorillas or elephants, or any jungle creatures to be honest. When I’m not thinking, what am I thinking about…
Well it wasn’t elephants.
The press material says that Abessira’s installation is there to make people feel happy, to cheer them up, maybe to remind them that things aren’t so bad, that we’re just going through a phase, that we’ve survived this before and we will again? I don’t know. I know I’m conflicted, though. I’m conflicted with the idea of dressing up the anti-terrorist bollards instead of reminding people what they really are and what they’re really for.
On the other hand, the power of art is just that: making something we take for granted visible again, putting it into a new context, allowing the viewer to make a connection: I like this picture… I like these posts… wait a minute, what are these posts? What are they here for again? Oh! Ohhhhhh…. Hm. And that gives you something to think about, let that slow process of transformation start. It needs a spark, and this is one way to provide it.
But there’s also this: in the Middle Ages, when fortification architecture was first incorporated across Western Europe, the fortifications themselves changed warfare, and in turn were modified to suit new tactics, weapons and siege techniques.
Thanks to the 1985 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 in 2001, most modern architecture focuses on the threat of attacks, using posts, cement blocks or even huge company signs or public sculpture as forms of bollards, or designing turns and curves into the entrances of buildings rather than long straight lines of entry.
Our modern fortifications have adapted to terrorism; terrorism adapts to our architecture. It’s a game of chicken and egg, isn’t it? Which comes first? Where does it end?
Who’s going to stop thinking about elephants?
I watched Londoners coming in and out of the London Bridge Station for a while, wanting to see if any of them noticed the bollards at all, if any of their days were brightened. No one seemed to even see them. One man balanced his Starbucks cup on one them — the one with the nature photography book — and lit a cigarette, not noticing the art on the bollards at all, just accepting them as a normal part of his environment.
“So the public should go about their business in the normal way and, as usual, be vigilant and cooperate with the police.” –Theresa May
Mycab and I finally arrived at the Claddagh Ring in Hendon, and the Bolan Bop. I said goodbye to my taxi driver and hello to all the feather boas and top hats and glitter and corkscrew hair: There was Karen and Barry, Martin and Geo, Helen my birthday twin, and John Wass, Roz and The Groover and Susu and Marc’s school friend Jeff Dexter, dapper as ever, the last of the original Mods.
And for a few hours, while world leaders tweeted and hurricanes formed and stormtroopers gathered on every horizon, we laughed and danced and shouted all the lyrics and licks and growls of Marc’s songs, through this house of people that’s been built over forty years, a house that welcomes everyone and has no moat to cross, no drawbridge to raise, no bollards or barriers to keep people away. A house that can hold just about all of you — as long as you keep a little Marc in your heart.
Jessica Abessira’s “Don’t Think Twice” is on view until November 26th, at the St Thomas Street entrance of London Bridge Station, in London.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich