A short text, written yesterday after a walk with Stephen Gill, and a visit to his studio. It is intended to accompany a series of photographs Stephen made of bricks and rocks picked up in the aftermath of the recent Hackney riots. I thought this was a fascinating angle of approach, which somehow shifted the context and moved the whole affair into plural time, rather than the neurotic heat of news reportage.
Walking home from Stephen Gill’s studio, with all those images and processed layers of light, those rescued objects and boxed archives, still playing in the sump of my crocodile brain, I washed up against a well-intended obstacle that I recognised as a public artwork. The level of collaboration between promoter and commissioned artisan achieves a spasm of frozen rhetoric, an over-signalled political correctness which cancels itself out, leaving a lump of generic gaucheness waiting for years of neglect to mulch it down to a condition where it is worthy of a second glance.
But in Weavers Field, as so often with these interventions, local school kids have been brought in on the act. They have been invited to make marks, to forge upbeat slogans, which would then be baked into interlocking bricks. The lovely red rectangles formed a chorus of voices around a spindly sculptural dance symbolising everything lost and implied in the park’s title. I transcribed some of the messages now immortalised on the rosy bricks. GIVE US MORE TO LIVE FOR THAN WAR. PEACE. ART. NEVER DOUBT THAT A SMALL GROUP OF THOUGHTFUL COMMITTED CITIZENS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD INDEED IT’S THE ONLY THING THAT EVER DOES.
We had been talking about bricks. This human relationship with baked clay and text goes back so far, to Mesopotamia, to shards lovingly preserved and displayed in the great museums. Stephen is a committed scavenger. And what he finds and uses, carries back from his expeditions, is neatly boxed and labelled as future evidence. I think his practice is exemplary, the way he strives to allow place an equal share in every photographic project he undertakes. Before I left the studio, he showed me a box filled with pieces of brick, conglomerates, fossil-enhanced stones with chipped edges. We’ll return to that story. Everything in the new CGI London denies stone, mistreats wood, spurns the sloppy mud and silt of poisoned creeks. It is time, no doubt, for a period of pyschogeology, navigating by glacial erratics dropped behind municipal flats, the hunks of Cornish granite exposed in new parks made from demolished terraces. The stones are beginning to sing. Thick lips of kerbs exert a powerful magnetism, twisting the blade of the compass, like that moment in Moby-Dick when lightning strikes and the ship sails against the direction of its fallible instruments. We are coming back, so misdirected by electronic gizmos and information overloads, to the stone within ourselves, the ice memories, the minerals in the blood.
At the end of a long walk in the footsteps of the poet John Clare, I found myself, as the light went, in Fotheringhay. I called on a local driver, one of those mysterious guides who appear just when you need them, to run me back to Stilton: where Clare confessed himself broken down and ‘foot-foundered’. This man creaked, he stamped the gears with a metal leg.
‘Had to retire after twenty years in the job,’ he said.
And what I had to ask was that.
‘London Brick Company, Whittlesey.’
He knew Bow, Bethnal Green, Hackney, all my haunts. He had driven there with loads of bricks, mile after mile, up and down the A1, Clare’s Great North Road. He collected the bricks from the gash of a quarry I had visited, early in my walk, and he conjured a phantom London as he drove, imagining bright new buildings taking shape from the cargoes he carried.
Stephen spoke of bricks made from the residue of the Beckton Sewage Works, human waste coming back, as at the start of everything, to shape the walls that contain us.
I remembered my own fetish for picking out tide-smoothed pieces of brick on the Thames foreshore, in Wapping or East Tilbury, bricks with fragments of lettering, broken alphabets. And, like a child again, making sentences from the traces of vanished architecture.
All of which is a long way around to arrive in the streets of Hackney at the time of the recent riots. Stephen Gill is so deeply embedded in the matter of this place, the mapping, recording, celebrating, that he felt obliged, as a moral duty, to make witness in some way. But he struggled to avoid the usual reflex responses. You could see in news reports such a relish for apocalypse. A delirious acknowledgement that the fires and trashed cars and supermarket sweeps were the perfect pre-Olympic promo. There was no need for further reportage, images were swallowing images in a self-cannibalising chain. The confused souls parachuted into these war zones stood stiffly at their posts, while all around them danced the children of the area tweeting and twittering and moving the action on. The flames seemed to run by some malicious instinct right down the new Overground Line, from Dalston Junction to the terminus of a long-established furniture store in Croydon.
Stephen’s methodology was to gather the stone harvest, by pram and bicycle. To tour the aftermath of the riot zone, in Clarence Road and Narrow Way, Mare Street, and by broader sweeps through the territory, like an urban archaeologist, evaluating axe heads and grapeshot, picking up chunks of rock that had bounced off police cars and feeling them for damage. He did not news-assault or ravish the moment with his camera. Tenderly, he transported the stones, as relics, to his studio, where they could be afforded the dignity of forensic examination and logging by high-definition lenses. At which point, the surface of the bricks and the chunks of projectile debris are revealed as landscapes, lunar surfaces seething with microscopic life, lichen clusters, blood shadows, stains and fissures. That which was thrown is now calmed, assessed, evaluated. The history of small wars is told through a consideration of the spent bullets and shells recovered from the battlefield. Every one of these bricks has a narrative. Some of them were recovered by Gill, after he had noted, from his laptop screen, the trajectory of flight picked up in a news report. Sections of garden wall, broken flag stones, they were pressed into service at this instant of social upheaval. The photographs restore gravitas, a stoic cataloguing of chaos. They are a truer portrait of the crowd broken down into individuals for judgement and retribution than that ugly parade of mugshots in the tabloids.
Cities can be mapped by missing cobblestones: Paris in ’68, London at the burning of Newgate Prison, Budapest, Belfast. Streets are dug up in reverse archaeology. The stones redistribute themselves, flying through the air, like Magritte’s loaves, in the direction of Plexiglas shields and visored helmets. If you can’t trust the digital captures of women leaping from flaming buildings or street actors brandishing their swag, the bricks in a box are hard evidence, pure and unsponsored. Surface drama is bled from the story, so that we can witness the purity of abstraction. We can be grateful to Stephen Gill for finding a way to record this event, modestly, carefully, without hysteria or any boast that he alone has the solution. No recipes, only rocks.
John Minton’s 1951 cover drawing for Roland Camberton’s Hackney novel, Rain on the Pavements, takes the same high-angle view of Mare Street offered by the helicopter-eye coverage of the recent riots. But there is a striking difference. Minton’s aggrieved marchers, holding up political placards, are heading for the right place to lodge their protest, the Town Hall. The August consumerists head for JD Sports, betting shops, and places offering more white goods, plasma screens, handbags. Camberton’s ambition, like that of Stephen Gill, was to know every stick and stone of the borough. The 2011, pre-Olympic flash mobs, like the promoters and salaried bureaucrats and off-shore developers, wanted to tear the stones down, to remake the world as a heap of future ruins, a cave of glittering trophies. Gill’s portraits, grey and self-contained, are a telling record of this historic moment.