Saturday, December 08, 2007

Cockleshell anti-heroes

At the Guardian, Robert Macfarlane has a lovely piece about walking the perimeter of the site of London's Olympic development with Iain Sinclair (some pieces of writing just give me that good yearning desire to try and write something interesting myself, this is a perfect example!). Here he considers Stephen Gill's new book Archeology in Reverse, which I feel I must obtain instantly:
For about a year - between the beginning of work and the completion of the fence - Gill haunted the Lower Lea on bike and on foot, watching as the first stages of the Olympic vision were rolled out. The result is a remarkable book that, in Gill's phrase, records the "traces and clues of things to come". His subject is the imminence of mass construction, rather than its realisation.

Among the first signs were the Compulsory Purchase Orders, which began to be served to the residents of the Olympic Park site soon after London won the Games (around 1,000 people have now been moved). The opening photograph in Archaeology in Reverse is of a CPO, plastic-wrapped and strung to a drainpipe. The string has worked loose, and the package has slipped to the ground. It resembles a body executed by firing squad: bound to the post and slumped.

After the CPOs came the surveyors and the labourers. Dozens of images are of men at work: planners, drillers, diggers, drivers, banksmen and the other footsoldiers of large-scale "regeneration". A man in a boilersuit bags and tags soil samples. A surveyor squints, sniper-like, through a theodolite's crystal. Another holds an 8ft spirit-level vertically, measuring what appears to be empty air. A pair of men in an inflatable dinghy attempt a landing on a canal island.

Concentrated on by Gill, these figures become eerie. Their tasks are mysterious, of inscrutable purpose. There are hints of fetish from the rubber of the dinghy and the gloves, to the Hi-Vis jackets and the hard hats. His images also invoke the police procedural: these men seem engaged in acts of forensic analysis, delving at an unspecified crime scene. The most memorable of these "workmen" photographs shows four dirty orange boiler-suits that have been hung on a wire fence to dry. Slung there, sagged and grimy, they look like four human skins: whole-bodied, flensed with intricacy and skill, then displayed as warnings to others.

Surveyors are of particular interest to Gill, as are the street graffiti of surveying. You will know this graffiti, though it is unlikely that you will be able to read it. Alpha-numeric sequences scrawled onto asphalt. Arrows and rings dashed down with a spray-can onto brickwork or paving slab. Repeatedly in Archaeology in Reverse, Gill records these sigils. A single white 'O' on a bridge, circling a rivet. A red paint stripe smeared across a stone in the undergrowth, like the residue of an orderly murder. Woadish blue paint slathered onto the wreck of a willow tree. Seen in serial, these marks become disconcerting. You become suspicious of their heavy encryption, the landscape interventions that they annotate and enable.
Here is Stephen Gill's website.

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