Excerpt: 'Tales of Two Londons' edited by Claire Armistead
From Flâneuse: Gummed Eyes by Iain Sinclair:
Mysterious grey forms, like reconnaissance photographs of a bombed city, or ruinously deformed eyeballs held against a sunless sky, appeared on huge hoardings in the development zone around London Bridge station. It was impossible to imagine what product they could be advertising. Except art. The universal fixative for the fallout from a project such as the Shard tower, with its satellite rail and retail parasites.
The vampire-green of traffic lights washed the giant London Bridge hoardings with a gothic varnish, before being blooded again. Several pedestrians, manoeuvring to get the most effective iPhone steals from these enigmatic lunar advertisements, came close to be- ing obliterated by an ill-conceived and unnoticed cycle lane.
I was making my way towards a meeting with the photographer responsible for the hoardings, for those gummy eyeballs, the dead planets. Effie Paleologou was discussing her work in the chapel at Guy’s Hospital. The old London teaching hospital was now establishing a Science Gallery where art and science would ‘collide’: CONNECTING ART, SCIENCE & HEALTH IN- NOVATIONS IN THE HEART OF THE CITY. A post-truth exaggeration, from the wrong side of the river, well beyond the City walls, plastered across fences.
Whenever I am asked about the flâneuse, I think of Effie. She came to London from Athens, Paris and New York, already fired by her reading of Walter Benjamin. She found her project in walk- ing at night around the purlieus of railway stations and points of transit. There was a Sebaldian colour to the enterprise, well ahead of Austerlitz – a book that she, in some ways, attempted to illustrate before it existed. Her photographs, usually taken at a time when travellers are most vulnerable, most abandoned to the city, were in translation. They were of England, but not English. They were London. Which is very different. London is multi-tongued, urgent. Cruel. London is everywhere, eyes wide open: exploited and exploiting.
Liverpool Street station was the heart of Effie’s pictorial essay: fugitive faces framed in window panels on Underground trains and late-night buses. Even those who live here, quite legitimately, look like paperless migrants. The waiting. The stretched hours. The achieved photographic capture is made in competition with a burgeoning net of high-angle surveillance cameras. And then the drifting away into the first places where immigrants would settle: blocks of austere flats viewed from a certain distance, that ring of sodium lights around an artificial football pitch.
Effie was securing her images and carrying them home for meticulous processing into prints that could be exhibited or catalogued. But she avoided direct confrontation. She kept her own identity, as photographer/recorder, out of the story. The anecdotes of misadventure, with discretion, were reserved for her friends. London values, but never rewards, anonymity. Effie explored the existential crisis in what she called ‘the secret life of cities after dark’. She honed the neurotic rasp of concentration brought about by circumnavigating districts lit by the flare of imminent threat. She avoided the crowd, the monad, and waited for the sets to empty. Her sensibility was theatrical.
Benjamin, Baudelaire and Henry James were cited. Effie spoke about the flâneur as a person, a man, who discovered the city ‘through desultory wandering and a trajectory which catches the transitoriness and ephemerality’. James would be the odd one out in that group, a confirmation of Paleologou’s wide and informed reading among the classics, European and American. The meandering Jamesian sentence, with its internal logic and feline thrust, was an established part of the Greek photographer’s practice: her nocturnal circuits.
Taking her son to school, venturing through Bethnal Green, going about her business, daily journeys, Old Street, Liverpool Street station, Effie walked with purpose. And she noticed how the places where she was forced to wait, put on time, were graced with pat- terns of expelled chewing gum. She was no longer a stalker, she was a stopper. She logged the discriminations of gum with the rigour of a research scientist. She used macro-lenses to inflate the microcosm of splat, stiffened boils ridging the tarmac. Like bits of the inside of a cheek, chewed and expectorated. She bent to the fertile dirt. She was no longer anonymous. She had stopped moving, standing in the shadows, losing herself in the crowd. She was now the spectacle: woman as police officer, council snoop or location hunter. An obstacle. Something to be stepped around. While she stooped to her task. ‘The aesthetics of the insignificant,’ she called it.
The flat world of our city pavements, disregarded by most pedestrians, is revealed, under the obsessive scrutiny of Paleologou, as significant terrain. A carpet of ill-fitting stone slabs, decorated with fast-food detritus, becomes part of the curvature of the uni- verse. The slightest scars – heel scratches, bicycle tracks, spilled blood, yesterday’s vomit, sodden leaves embedded in cracks, ice damage – register a pathology that the qualified witness records and exposes.
One of Effie’s defining gifts is the ability to work from wherever life chooses to locate her. Or wherever, on impulse, she chooses to locate her life. In the case of the chewing-gum series – Microcosms, 2014 – the geographical limits the photographer decided to impose formed an occult triangle, lines of attraction and repulsion, between three stations: Bethnal Green, Old Street, Liverpool Street. Each of these active hubs had a freighted back-story. Bethnal Green: a wartime disaster with panicked crowds crushed on the stairs. Liverpool Street: a railway cathedral supported by carbonised columns like an iron forest, where involuntary exiles like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, returned to London. Or where Kindertransport trains delivered so many future orphans. W G Sebald, arriving at Liverpool Street from Norwich, took to these streets in quest of postcards that he could infiltrate into the crafted pages of his documentary fiction. The German poet used photographs to authenticate events that never quite happened. Paleologou speaks about uncovering an ‘arbitrary cartography’, points of arrival and departure. She is hunting for incidents or materials capable of sustaining her anonymity – and, at the same time, confirming the only qualification that will permit her continued London residence: the accumulation of recorded detail making a new map of an old place.
The prints based on that humblest and most intimate metropolitan pestilence, chewing gum, forge a metaphorical connection, worthy of Bataille, between the bulging pregnancy of the glob on the pavement and the blood-veined eye of the observer. It was a brilliant notion: instead of cataloguing, in the traditional fashion of the dandified flâneur, shop windows, hats, shoes, advertisements, Effie kept her steady gaze on the unscrolled mappa mundi of the London pavement. A monochrome carpet of transience fouled by fossils of gum in patterns like an early star map. As above, so be- low. There was magic to this exercise. Repetition was part of its charm. From the black spots – in which so much could be read – we can imply a stupendous range of human intercourse.
There is a sexual tenderness in Effie’s album of oral rejects. Dry mouths have been salved by the sugary-sweet coating around a capsule of rubber. The stain on the pavement is the DNA of a passing stranger who is now brought inside, into the domestic cell of the studio, by the intimate processes of the darkroom. Paleologou compares gum-chewing to eating and kissing. But here is an oral transaction with no nutritional value. Gum is anti-food. It mimics foreplay – nibble, suck, bite – but it must not be swallowed. To swallow would be to choke. Gum is prophylactic, a shield against human breath, taste, life. Gum is a wartime US import, a gift of cultural imperialism, thrown from the invader’s tank to the outstretched hands of children. Expanding pink balloons, puffed from lipsticked Lolita mouths, are unscripted speech bubbles from the Trumpist comic of the world.
What is beautiful is the poetry of reduction that Paleologou imposes on her quest. From her archaeological record of the density of gum sightings, the photographer conjures a narrative of spectral crowds ‘forming random constellations as if in a parallel universe’. But the suspect act of photography is never enough. She kneels in the dirt, like a supplicant, a local historian making brass rubbings, to put paper over the sticky traces, to rub them with a pencil. This is an affectionate engagement with ‘viral colonies of debris’. It makes no difference if we are seeing these pinpricks as glimmers of million-year-old light from deep space, printed from a telescope, or a pulsing cancer cell enlarged on a slide under a microscope. The fissures are geological.
Effie’s images are contemporary in their desperation to reanimate the city by recording its most disposable but enduring detritus. And pre-modern, in the medieval philosophy of humours, in metamorphosis and alchemy. The prints defy category and date of origin. They are Victorian. They hint at the birth of photography, the death of fundamentalist Christianity, the beginnings of psychoanalysis.
It is not part of the official trajectory of the project, but Effie’s image trail leads straight to the gravestone of William Blake in Bunhill Fields. Visitors, sitting on a bench under a drooping fig tree, contemplate the enormity of the poet’s residual presence in London. And they spit out gum. The coins, placed every day in tribute on the lip of the gravestone, leave rusty traces. The stone is smoothed by exposure to sunlight and acid rain. Paleologou sees her retrievals as part of an established tradition. A tradition of accidental collaboration between attentive artist and the legions of ordinary citizens going about the business of survival. ‘I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye,’ said Blake, ‘any more than I would Question a Window concerning Sight. I look thro’ it and not with it.’
After the event in the chapel, Effie walked me to the colonnade of the hospital, where a selection of her prints were displayed: moons, deserts, laboratory specimens. All derived from chewing gum. The photographer was eager to present her work as part of a triangulation with the oval tablet recording that short spell, 1941- 42, when Ludwig Wittgenstein ‘worked incognito at Guy’s Hospital Pharmacy as Drugs Porter and Ointment Maker’, and the unfortunate bronze effigy of John Keats, failed medical student, in one of the stone igloos rescued from old London Bridge.
Before catching a 149 bus at London Bridge station, I marvelled again at the way gum had been made into art, into advertisement, and how the subtlety of Effie’s expanded images was barely noticed in the noise of the place. The night-smudged tower of the Shard broadcast its acoustic pulse into the fretful station concourse, where late travellers were talking to themselves, shouting at their hands.
Excerpted from Tales of Two Londons: Stories from a Fractured City, edited by Claire Armistead. Published by OR Books, 2018. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
Photograph by Julian Walker.