Overlooked Places and People in Art and the City
In a city like London where locals and tourists alike adopt a non-stop, frantic pace of life, it is no surprise that sometimes things are overlooked, missed by a city of individuals without time to pause. Whether an underappreciated architectural feature on the upper storey of a building, a newly-opened cafe by the tube on our daily commute, or a rough sleeper shivering in a doorway, so many aspects of our supposedly familiar city are missed and neglected on a daily basis. As part of our exhibition ‘There Not There’, we have teamed up with Unseen Walking Tours to hold an event that offers an opportunity to uncover the hidden stories of people and places, both through the artworks in our exhibition and through stories from the streets around The Courtauld Gallery
The theme of overlooked places and spaces is key to our exhibition ‘There Not There’. Many works in the show deal with the unseen, shining a new light on elements of our daily experience that we may not realise are there, and are meaningful and important. These works challenge our preconceptions and encourage us to reconsider our perspective, offering an alternative way of looking at the world.
The first works in the show, Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Hole in Snow’ and ‘Black (Soil Covered) Snowball’, do just this. These two photographs are visually very similar: in each, a dark circle dominates a white background. The titles of the works however indicate that the focal points of the photographs are in fact opposites; one is a hole – an absence – whilst the other is a snowball – a presence. In this way, Goldsworthy suggests that absence and presence are much closer concepts than we might initially presume; the hole in the snow is no longer merely an empty void, but assumes a latent presence of its own, visual and metaphysical, becoming the centrepiece of the photograph and commanding attention. The artist causes us to change our focus from what we believe to what we see, revealing that our preconceived notion of a hole as representing an absence, devoid of all existence, is not entirely correct. Sometimes we must refocus our attention to what is in front of us to see what carries importance and truth.
Similarly, Armando Andrade Tudela’s ‘Billboard’ series inspires reflection upon parts of the urban landscape that we encounter on a daily basis, but never truly consider. The imposing and derelict billboards that form the subject of Tudela’s photographs are common sights along the highway near the artist’s hometown in Peru. Yet they are rarely noticed, having become so integral to the landscape that they seem invisible to locals. By depicting them as the sole focus of these artworks, Tudela makes us look again, bestowing these towering and obsolete structures with authority and beauty. The photographs cast the billboards as monuments to the failed hopes of Western consumerism and commercialism, no longer displaying the bright advertisements for material goods once emblazoned across their front.
George Shaw’s ‘The End of Time’ also demonstrates how places that seem unremarkable or devoid of meaning in fact possess rich histories of their own, often being the source of powerful memories and experiences for individuals and communities. This vast painting shows a plot of land, empty and uninspiring. A pub used to stand on this site, the pub that Shaw’s father frequented when the artist was a child and where his mother occasionally worked. The pub subsequently burnt down, leaving a mere skeleton of a building standing in its place. As Shaw grew older, he passed this burnt-out shell whenever he was visiting his sick mother. Eventually, the council demolished what was left of the ruins of the pub, leaving the patchwork plot of land that Shaw captures in his work. With this story, the painting and its subject immediately take on multiple new layers of meaning, revealing the significance of the place to the artist’s memory and identity, as well as causing us to think about the stories behind familiar and fond places that we have lost in our lifetimes.
Stories are what give meaning to places, stories are what connect us to each other. But without looking for them, without listening to the voices that tell them, these stories can so easily pass us by. On Saturday 7 July, we are holding a walking tour of the area surrounding The Courtauld Gallery and this tour is all about bringing such stories to life (for tickets and more information, visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/unseen-london-walking-tour-tickets-46711642781). This event is in partnership with Unseen Walking Tours and led by the wonderful Viv, our guide who shares entertaining and illuminating tales about famous and familiar places on Embankment, Strand and around Covent Garden. What sets this tour apart is that every guide working for Unseen Walking Tours has experienced life on the streets, meaning that at some stage in their lives they have been homeless.
For many years, Viv herself made her home at various spots along the tour route, including in Temple Gardens, below Waterloo Bridge, and down the steps of the Transport Museum. Hearing her stories causes us to look again at these places and people that we pass unknowingly every day, just as Tudela’s photographs do for the billboards. Viv and Tudela both make us reconsider how we view our surroundings, what we see around us, but most importantly what we don’t see. The walking tour uncovers layers of the streets we thought we knew so well, shining a light on the forgotten corners and unseen spaces. More importantly though, Viv’s inspiring and honest reflection upon her experiences of this bustling, vibrant area of London gives voice to a neglected part of society: those living on the streets without a home to go back to, those who more often than not, we choose not to see. Like many of the artworks in our show, Viv’s tour makes us think again about supposedly familiar places, offering an opportunity to reassess our perspectives and really pay attention to what is right in front of our eyes.
If you would like to hear Viv’s stories for yourself and hear more tales behind the artworks in ‘There Not There’, please join us on Saturday 7 July, 1.30-4pm for a curator-led tour of the exhibition followed by the walking tour with Unseen Walking Tours. For more information about Unseen Walking Tours, visit http://sockmobevents.org.uk/.