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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Surrey Quays, Southwark Park, Dilston Grove and a reverse Sinclair Overgorund

Southwark Park in late autumn 2015: ain't it pretty?
Hell! I wanted to visit Maryon Park and re-trace Antonioni's progress across south London in 1966, when he made Blow Up. Instead I get side-tracked at Surrey Quays and end-up peering at strangely powerful pieces of conceptual sculpture in Southwark Park's two-for-the-price-of-one art spaces.

Background (skip this to read about James Capper)

Part of the motivation for this abortive journey across south east London was reading a few more chapters of  Iain Sinclair's London Overgound, to the point where he reaches Clapham Junction and Falcon Road.

The chapter about Angela Carter is a warm tribute to a writer he clearly loved. Then he goes back to his usual North Londoner's cavalier treatment of the area I have been tramping for three decades, and all's once again fair game. He misses no opportunity to do down most of south west London, and - picking the easiest of all targets - Clapham itself.

Trouble is I agree with much of it. Excpet that now I no longer wish I had stayed in Dalson. To be surrounded by all that hipsterish nonsense would be unbearable. How much better it is to reside in a reviled district!

Sinclair dislikes Clapham, just like all right-minded Londoners of this era do. But he likes the railway bit of Clapham Junction. He is right - the meeting of these great rivers of steel and wood still has the power to stir imaginations, and the view form the absurdly long footbridge is still astonishing.

He also finds something to praise just next to this - the motorcycle spare parts shop, which I too have adored ever since I realised it was there in about 1981. Getting excited about this place he mentions Antonioni and even mentions the red terraces of Stockwell in Blow Up.

But he doesn't tell us exactly what these red houses were. I knew them only too well, as a motorcycle-obsessed 15 year old. At any opportunity I would cycle or take the 109 bus up to Brixton from Croydon, to press my face against the windows of Pride & Clark showrooms, which seemed to stretch all along the north side of Stockwell Road, roughly where the skatepark is now.

The Gallery by the Pool, with a Blue Plaque for local cricketing hero,
Bobby "The Guv'nor" Abel, 1857 - 1936
This gave me the urge to attempt a long overdue visit to Maryon Park, scene of the supposed killing in the film.  Instead I find myself shuffling around the Surrey Quays shopping centre, and very nearly missing the still quite stirring vista of the old Surrey and Greenland Docks, stretching away on the other side of the road, now a paradise for runners and water-sports enthusiasts (of the healthy type) as well as property speculators.

And then a quick circuit of Southwark Park itself. Of course Sinclair  is right, this park is now thoroughly part of the Overground-land, but it is also yet another of those big, proud, inner-city suburb parks, lust like Battersea, Dulwich and Victoria and Clissold and….on and on.

It has its grand avenues of plane trees, its boating lake and bowling green and children's areas and rose gardens and tea rooms.

Then, outdoing most of the other parks (apart from Kensington Gdns) it has not one but two inter-connected art spaces.

James Capper and a vision of JCB hell

The first is a purpose built white concrete block, with one large gallery, a big shop and a garden that was out of bounds.  It also had a spacey reception area with very friendly, ready-to-help staff, always a great plus point in any art space.

Their current expo was of a local artist called James Capper, who seemed to have become completely obsessed with JCB-style heavy construction engineering kit, diggers, scrapers, earth-movers.

One of James Capper's earth-gouging machines
But he took their kit  and turned it into an even more aggressive set of frightening machines - machines like huge steel spiders with ripping talons, serrated-edge knife-blade claws, massively-powerful hardened steel jaws, ready to gouge and crunch an crush up anything they happened to come across.

He sketched these nightmarish yet all too familiar machines, made models, drew up blueprints, and then made the real thing….several of which were crouching menacingly in this gallery.

The young man at reception urged me to visit part two of this show, which was in the second art space across the park.

Here, his hydraulically-animated, pneumatically driven mad Max style power tools had been let loose in what seemed to be a decommissioned church, now empty but with the vaulted wood roof and tall thin windows  of a 1920s standard issue Anglican barn-church.

Some of them appeared to have already  had a go at what looked like holy-water stoops…there were serious gouges into great chunks of poured concrete, which looked like they might once have been part of a church altarpiece.

Sure enough, the two (also very helpful and friendly) young women at the door told me the artist himself comes in to give regular demos of his works in action. They can maybe only be fully appreciated once the hydraulic fluid is flowing through their rubbery arteries.

I'm still not sure what the final piece will be : the mechanically sculpted lump go concrete, or the machines that are doing it: or the entire spectacle. All, surely.

Nightmare in Dilston Grove: one of James Capper's sinisterly
anthropomorphicmachines gets to work inside the old church
It's a puzzling, single-minded, disturbing, and crazily ambitious show that only really began to win me round in this second space…so atmospheric, and yet also clearly the demented cousins of similar machinery I had seen from the windows of various buses on my way across the SW-SE postcodes, busting up old buildings, preparing the ground for new blocks of much more expensive dwellings.

But why not set these machines to work, late at night, and get them to start dismantling some of the horrible erections along the south bank of the Thames, between Vauxhall Bridge and BAttersea Power station? Dream away...

So, there's the link again…

James Capper // Prototypes
The Gallery by the Pool and Dilston Grove,
Southwark Park
1 Park Approach
London SE16 2UA

14 October - 6 December 2015
See: www.cgplondon.org

PS: The shop in the main gallery has three shelves of art books. At least one shelf is devoted to the works of Iain Sinclair and his Overground accomplice, Andrew Kötting.

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