London in Ruins: Olympics as Archaeology, Archaeology as Art

by Steven Thomson

August 2012

As the London 2012 Olympic Games come to a close, the city is keeping a keen eye on East London’s urban revitalization legacy, whose promise of prosperity was a driving factor in the city’s being awarded the Games in 2005. In contrast to this consensus-led urge towards development, artists such as Hilary Powell and Stephen Gill utilize archaeological tropes to critically examine the area. This sub-movement in contemporary British art represents more than a current taste for ruin porn, but a continuation of London artists “digging” into the city’s material culture heritage during the 1990s, as embodied by Mark Dion and Richard Wentworth. In this pinnacle year of spectacle for the capital, considering archaeological-based artworks reveals aspects of a distinctly British sentiment towards urban nostalgia and the political underpinnings of the Olympic revitalization process

Before construction began, official archaeological digs were commissioned out of legal obligation, but also to record images that reinforced the narrative of East London as a disused industrial wasteland. But in her Hackney Wick studio overlooking the walled Olympic Park, self-described “urban gleaner” Hilary Powell mines the site’s heritage as a site of production and technological innovation. Taking inspiration from Victorian children’s recreation, she creates etchings that comprise popup and tunnel books depicting the area’s nineteenth-century factories and warehouses, twentieth-century arms manufacturers, social housing estates, artists’ studios and informal immigrant communities—almost all of which have faced destruction in the erasure and pursuit of Olympic architectural gold.

The etched images of her personal archaeological archive, compiled from interactions with professional practitioners and her own Debordian psychogeographic jaunts through the Olympic Park, convey an alternative vision and reactivate the hidden histories of East London. Powell’s books employ Walter Benjamin’s notion of disenchantment through enchantment “in order to break the spell of consumer capitalism,” thus unraveling the fairy tail of revitalization that the Olympics promise for East London.

Photographer Stephen Gill practices an “archaeology in reverse,” in which he buries and unearths images captured on the site of Hackney Wick in the period prior to Olympic construction. Everything about Gill’s work is entwined with the area. With a 1960s plastic-lens camera sourced at a Hackney Wick market for fifty pence, he records pictures of mundane objects and human interactions: anonymous electric pylons, weeds in bloom, a Rückenfigur of two women in hajibs standing before a nondescript van.

After being entombed in the neighborhood’s soil, the photographs evince the corrosion from the area’s contaminated earth, the result of over two centuries of industrial dumping. Streaks across a photograph of abandoned soda bottles resemble a Gerhard Richter squeegee painting, while an unassuming image of an open air market is now blotched in flame-like orange shapes, bringing to mind the riots that erupted in the summer of 2011. These photographs comprise Gill’s book, Buried. Each of the limited edition copies were then rubbed with more dirt from the area. Buried appeared in 2007 through Gill’s own publishing imprint, highlighting the project as an effort in coming to terms with one’s personal relationship to a geographic site—a reciprocal exchange in which East London haunts the artist as much as Gill haunts the area’s soil, now ensconced in stadia and blueprints for future development.

While extremely site specific (one wonders how a non-East Londoner would relate to their work), the output of Powell and Gill draws upon a legacy of London artists who engage with an archaeology of the contemporary past. Quotidian ephemera form the basis of Richard Wentworth’s thirty-year-long project, Making Do and Getting By, in which the artist collected various objets trouvés during rambles through the city. In his 2002 project, An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty, he gathered detritus from his native neighborhood of Kings Cross, which like Hackney Wick, abutted an aggressive urban revitalization scheme. In a vacated plumbing supply store, he assembled these handpicked pieces of rubbish alongside myriad place markers: every conceivable map of London (flight paths, geologies, the Channel Tunnel route, Victorian census maps), secondhand television sets playing an original version of The Ladykillers and Wentworth’s own video of construction workers setting out road markings and a periscope overlooking the area of intensive reconstruction, reached by a readymade stairwell imported from a Thameside container yard. He implemented the project into a community rendezvous, coordinating such events as Goldsmiths students attending a lecture on the enlarged spatial memory of taxi drivers while another group from a Kings Cross minicab office played table tennis.

Mark Dion enacted a similar method of community engagement in his 1999 ethnographic piece, Tate Thames Dig. Preceding the opening of the Tate Modern in the former Bankside Power Station, Dion led local, untrained residents in archaeological digs of both the surrounding neighborhood and further upstream, around Tate Britain. The digs and discussions culminated in a monumental mahogany display of findings at Tate Britain. By taking on the role of explorer, detective and natural scientist, Dion empowered a community confronting abrupt change—perhaps an even more poignant statement than his riff on the museological cabinet of curiosities tradition.

What separates Powell and Gill from their forbearers is a lack of Dion and Wentworths’ immediate audience engagement in the creation process—what one might call relational aesthetics—in favor of a hermetic involvement with one’s own urban terroir. This symptom was prophesized in Hal Foster’s 1996 essay, The Artist as Ethnographer in which the theorist identified the trend at the turn of the twenty-first century for artists to appropriate anthropological techniques. Foster warns that this sort of self-othering can metamorphose into self-absorption, in which a project of “ethnographic self-fashioning” becomes a practice of narcissistic self-refurbishing. The “flâneries of the new nomadic artist,” such as Gill and Powell’s archaeologies of East London, represent the decadent afterlife of London art of the 1990s and early 2000s and the “vogue for pseudo-ethnographic reports in art.”

Indeed, Gill and Powell’s gravitation to themes of archaeology and destruction evince a problematic romance of the ruin. While their work provokes timely questions about urban erasure, the viewer also becomes aware of a dangerous nostalgia for a distant past and fetish for aestheticized income inequality, accessible only via boutique, artisanal books. As Hackney Wick gentrifies and the vacated Olympic Park becomes enveloped in either rapid foreign investment or a fall into ruin, we must ask these artists to dig deeper.