‘What did your street look like in the past?’ One of the more useful ephemerals of the heritage industry is the Godfrey Edition of Old Ordnance Survey Maps: a largely Victorian patchwork intended for those ‘who wish to explore London and its history’. A canny piece of merchandizing to set alongside the repair and enlargement, in authentic sepia, of retrieved family photographs (not necessarily your own family); a painless method of acquiring a fraudulent pedigree, of airbrushing the warts of history and providing the hard evidence of a past that never existed. The folded scarlet repro featuring Bethnal Green & Bow (1894) nominates, as its cover illustration, a postcard of the Royal Hotel, Grove Road. (A slightly odd choice given that the hotel is in South Hackney and barely ducks under the cut-off line at the top of the map.) The district on display is a jigsaw of impacted terraces, burial grounds, canals and railways, short on remembered Imperial glory. The chosen image is a frame of film, made over, about to flicker into life (like the honky-tonk interlude in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). A stroller in a straw boater pauses at the kerbside. A horsedrawn cart trundles past, loaded with beer barrels: a sorry precursor of the brass and leather heritage version. A flag flutters above the pediment. There are other nostalgic features, lost but not forgotten, such as a functioning public convenience (Gentlemen only).
It must delight the Parks and Amenities Committee of the Tower Hamlets Council to know that the Royal Hotel survives, freshly painted, hung with flower baskets, obediently empathetic with the royal blue and gold colour scheme that makes the whole zone appear, to the migrant gunning for docklands, like a travelogue down the flank of an upmarket cigarette packet: railings, ironwork gates with chamberpot crowns and gilded lilies, litter bins, plaques offering soundbites of PC antiquarianism. There are now so many of these plaques that, peeping through the fence, it looks like they’ve let in a plague of estate agents to sell off Victoria Park in strips. These elegant noticeboards are a convenient way of mixing a self-serving rhetoric with the pieties of historical revisionism: we are informed that the park ‘suffered from under-investment and remote management’ at the hands of the GLC and the LCC. A multi-million pound restoration programme initiated by Bow Neighbourhood – and funded by a list of private sector benefactors and Euro charities that must have kept the sign-painters busy for a fortnight – made this a fit location in which to parade that most precious of icons, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, on her ninetieth birthday. A photo opportunity that linked the triumphalism of the facelifted park (its fountains and sleeping policemen) with newsreel footage of the old duck’s previous excursion to East London at the time of the Blitz. Wartime dereliction was therefore twinned with the blight of postwar socialism, woolly thinking and Stalinist incompetence.
Cruder signboards (lower budget) warn the public that ‘guard dogs are in use’ and that these ‘premises’ are protected by Armour Security with their manned ’24-hour control room’. Grove Road is an avenue of hanging baskets, dazzling pavements from which the filth is regularly hosed, while the people’s park has been fenced off, maintained like a roofless marquee, reserved for the exercise of police horses and the exhibition of restored public statuary. The most notable of these casts are the ‘Dogs of Alcibiades’, a pair of genitally deformed, sightless albinos who frequently model for the territory’s most apposite metaphor: steaming curls of real dogshit placed alongside plaster hounds. Every artefact must align itself with the wacky concept of the ‘Bow Heritage Trail’, a conceit which it is impossible to imagine anyone actually walking, as it meanders from the dog plinths to the ‘Top o’ the Morning’ public house and its gleeful commemoration of the First Railway Murder.
East End boozers have always followed the market, adopting extreme measures to keep their names in the guidebook: think of the Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road, obliged to shift its allegiance from the Brothers Kray to the Brothers Roux. A packed conservatory of Iocal businessmen mocks the adjacent Watney Mann brewery, which is no more than a buttressed facade. Even the Royal Hotel got lucky and made it into Duncan Campbell’s The Underworld. A hitman, having parked a stolen Ford Fiesta on the spot where the Victorian urinal used to stand, took advantage of the walk-through layout, ordered a pint of Foster’s, and sauntered across to the table where Jimmy Moody (a face who went all the way back to the affray at Mr Smith’s in Catford) was nursing his sundowner. The malign tourist then pulled out a Webley .38 and shot his target four times at point-blank range. As yet there is no plaque to précis the legend – but the 1894 postcard is tainted, the crimson border has become a nightmare sky. Hurt can be retrospective. Violent displacements of energy are capable of infecting the membrane of what we call ‘the past’. They gift us with memories on which we have no moral claim.
It is tempting for the pedestrian moving south towards Roman Road to close out the civic tidiness of Victoria Park by making treaty with the psychogeographers, paying homage to William Blake’s Los who was an earlier pilgrim on this route: ‘thro’ Hackney. .. towards London/Till he came to old Stratford, & thence to Stepney & the Isle/Of Leutha’s Dogs… And saw every minute particular: the jewels of Albion running down/The kennels of the streets & lanes as if they were abhorr’d’. The Hertford Union Canal (itself a failed speculation) is banked by the gutted shells of ‘various mills and manufactories’; it waits, in limbo, for investment to catch up with imagination. Developers have to hone their psychic powers, see into the future, ruined husks regenerated, lofts carved into the optimum number of units. Nothing is as it appears. They feed on the predatory instincts of artists who have already surveyed the ground. They follow them into places prepared to yield themselves up to the magic of metamorphosis. They are poets of trespass. They see white gymnasia where the pedants, picking over the heritage maps, locate nothing but serrulated blocks of poverty housing, grey coral packing the space between the Hertford Union Canal to the north, the Regent’s Canal to the west, the Great Eastern Railway to the south, the North London Railway to the east. An island of exile known as Old Ford or St Mary Stratford (the ‘old Stratford’ of Blake). A biopsy of Bow revealing an absence of green spaces, termite ladders parasitical upon the whim of industry. The canals and railways, which carried others through this picaresque desolation, acted as barriers to the indigenous population, snuffing out the fantasy of escape. After Mile End, Grove Road, wide enough to carry a tramline, ceded to a grander highway, named after the charitable Baroness Burdett-Coutts, the privilege of entering Limehouse and ‘the narrows of the River’s side’.
The Tower Hamlets planners, to give them their due, were closet visionaries: they conceived the fantastic notion of a Green Corridor to connect all the broken patches of grass between Victoria Park and the Isle of Dogs. They would create a ribbon of urban parkland and sweep away the unsightly clusters of temporary housing. Grass is what they wanted to celebrate: the sickly baize of over-cropped and over-fertilized paddocks. A fenced and locked chain of dog reservations laid to the horizon like regressive pool tables. A Green Corridor that was impossible to walk without constant banishments into the road, the furious traffic runs. Locals rarely bothered to make the attempt. The small parks were left as monuments to their own innate surrealism. They were out of synch with the rest of the borough, plein air museums of shadows, humps, hollows, earthed-over streets that threaten to break through the provisional surface.
Wennington Green is the most northerly of these sanctioned essays in the pastoral. The politicians have disguised the lyricism of their modest proposal by talking up the environmental benefits. Councillor Eric Flounders of the ruling Liberal Democrats, unconsciously echoing Le Corbusier, asserted that ‘what people who live in tower blocks want is parkland’. An Arcadia for the underclass. Grass hacked to within a centimetre of its life. Wood carvings. Eccentric pathways. Arbours in which lurk strange men and stranger dogs. Rustic camouflage for exiled drinking schools. The whole scheme was a disinterested attempt at municipal aesthetics, paternalistic, bizarre – laying out a mental landscape for a culture of compulsory leisure. Somewhere for the care-of-the-community waifs to kick their heels. Beuys-art interpreted by committee. Green spaces in triplicate. It was appropriate, inevitable, that Wennington Green with its last sorry huddle of housing should be the chosen location for Rachel Whiteread’s spectacular cryogenic experiment.
The only entry to Wennington Green on the north side is the inevitable gap in the railings created by fishermen wanting easy access to the canal. Squeezing through, the immediate sensation is troubling: avenues of sycamores trace the faultline where the back gardens of the Grove Road terrace gave way to transitional wilderness. Negotiating moist casts of dog dirt flung up by the rotation of tractor-drawn triples, you approach the badly fitted carpet of replacement turf that delineates the ground where Whiteread’s House once stood. Wennington Green is otherwise a graveyard without any of the usual prompts, the slabs and angels that list the names and dates of those who solicit remembrance. All the specific provocations of memory have been deleted. This is a field of voluntary amnesia.
It was prescient of Whiteread, after months of careful searches through housing department lists, trawls with James Lingwood of Artangel, inwards through Islington, Hackney and Bow, to arrive at the one site where her project would fuse all the loose wires of potential catastrophe. House, seen from across the field, was a giant plug, feeding current into the madness of the city. Grove Road had the lot: a terrace house with three exploitable sides (and a sitting tenant), a hyperactive local politico, anarchist squatters, post-Situationist rock stars looking for the grand gesture, and wild-eyed psychogeographers prophesying war. This terrace was in the wrong documentary. It was an affront to the radiant blankness of the Green Way, an all too human shambles. High art might be a convenient excuse for making the transition, wiping the tape. The intransigence of Sydney Gale (as he was known to the broadsheets), or ‘Sid the War Hero’ (to the tabloids), was the only thing keeping the ruin upright. 193 Grove Road belonged, through right of long occupation, to Mr Gale and his family. The ex-docker had nothing else to feel so bloody-minded about. Even his surname seemed to allude, punningly, to the night of the Great Storm, the 16th October 1987, an event hijacked by the Parks Committee. The storm was the perfect front for strategic refurbishment, the sealing off of the Victoria Park Lido – as a car park (with no access to the grassland). Mr Gale became the wind of rage incarnate. He was more than ready to busk as a performance artist, to display his own handpainted banner: THIS IS MY HOME, I LIVE HERE. A tautology that was all too soon to be confounded.
Up to this point, before the work began, Artangel and the LibDem caucus, and even Mr Gale, held to their uneasy alliance. Contracts were drawn up. Mr Gale would be rehoused and Whiteread, no stranger to the area, would move in her team, forensically wrapped and masked, to commence the process of mummification.
Whiteread’s earlier Turner Prize contender, Ghost, had been exhibited at the nearby Chisenhale Gallery, a traditional (i.e. ex-industrial) East London space. A functional property with no true function, beyond housing the ghosts of the veneer factory, the voices of the women who turned out Spitfire propellers. These husks are prized for their emptiness, their silence. They make minimalism look good: the least disturbed, the most effective.
Ghost, encountered unexpectedly, was a revelation. Literally so: this cube of retrieved and impacted light illuminated the windowless gallery. The relationship between sculpture and containing space was successfully managed. The piece did not dominate, or deny, the history of the chamber to which it had been brought. A lengthy period of private labour in the original Archway room, casting and reversing, had resulted in this mysterious monobloc. Ghost outreached pathos: it was crueller and brighter than that. The allusions are to Egyptian and Babylonian plunder in the British Museum and not to the sentiments of false memory, colonized domestic enclosures. The Archway room was not called upon to surrender the lives it had witnessed, it became an archetype: demotic overwhelmed by hieratic. Set outside, in a sculpture park, a corporate watercourt, the venom of Ghost would be dissipated. It would be as meaningless as one of those generic ‘period’ rooms in the Geffrye Museum.
House, a few hundred yards to the west of the Chisenhale Gallery, exposed to the fret of passing traffic, was a trickier proposition from the start. Whiteread, innocent of irony, remarks (in her video diary) how surprised she is that the park will not be secure: ‘I hadn’t realized the gates would be open the whole time’. She will be watched. The meditative hermeticism of the Archway room will not be possible. House is under sentence of death. It will never be brought inside to a controlled environment. It will remain itself: peeled, frozen, laid bare. The bride stripped by her bachelors. House is public, front-lawn art – a sponsored bastard. The stakes are high enough to alert every demon in the dictionary: culture vampires, strollers, all those who underwrite any challenge to the torpid energy balance of the Green Corridor.
After their searches through dusty housing records, Whiteread and Artangel were fortunate enough to nominate a vagrant terrace that was under the ‘protection’ of a spectacularly contrary LibDem cadre. A bunch quite capable of shredding the user-friendly rhetoric of the upriver party spin doctors. An embattled cell of activists who, by loudly championing the ‘local’, could attempt to promote village values in a panorama of millennial meltdown. Covert racism (‘We have produced leaflets with Scotsmen in kilts’), boastful philistinism, and immaculate streets, would be the unspoken manifesto. The slashing of the Arts budget (curtains for the Half Moon Theatre) was therefore twinned with the perverse re-imagination of the rubble of abandoned terraces as sub-Georgian parkland. It wasn’t that the neighbourhood bosses disliked art, as such. It was much more that they were themselves artists manqué, opponents of the internationalist conspiracy. Under such a regime, the Bow Neighbourhood turned itself into a reservation of pieties, a diverse wedge of well-scrubbed streets lacking any centre, anything worth destroying. The real achievement of Artangel was political: the drawing up of the contract for House, the parameters of toleration, while the most effective spokesperson for the philosophy of enlightened prejudice was safely out of the country.
Councillor Eric Flounders descended on the fait accompli like an avatar of the Great Storm, a bismuth Cromwell. It wasn’t just the name, you couldn’t invent Eric: as fiction he was strictly redundant. He had a second life as a flamboyantly drab PR operative for Cunard. The perfect man to produce advance copy for the Titanic brochure, Eric had an instinct for disaster. House was a media opportunity not to be squandered, a chance for Flounders to take his grievances upmarket – to defend the eviction of 100 Bangladeshi families, badmouth Guardian-reading Hampstead pinkos, and tell art scum sniffling for alms to ‘fuck off’. In other words, Eric was a traditionalist, dancing on the grave of concepts that had been buried twenty years ago. You can also admire him: the way he resisted the arm-twisting of the party apparatchiks, the certainty that he was never now going to make it to Westminster, the pressure to avoid yet another LibDem own goal in East London. Flounders stood firm: House was ‘crap’. ‘The more people who want it to stay there’, he told the East London Advertiser, ‘the more resolute I become’.
As is often the case, where aesthetic questions are concerned, the most extreme political opponents were in agreement: ‘junk’. The disaffiliated class warriors who squatted 199 Grove Road were primed to take an interest in an increasingly volatile situation. Art guerrilla Stewart Home’s riposte came in the form of a novel, Red London, which joyously deconstructed the event – as it was happening. Which is one of the advantages of the book-a-month school of neo-pulp anarchy. Home’s constituents, unaware that they were supposed to be a figment of the author’s rancid imagination, were ready to exploit the opportunities offered by a major example of public art being dumped in their lap by outside forces who knew nothing of their existence. Anything short of actually living there: ‘Every buddhist Octagon had offered to house in Grove Road turned down the accommodation’. Home, throwing together at speed a wicked cocktail of disinformation, satire, bent gossip, delivered a psychic survey of the climate in which House was constructed; a survey more accurate, on every level, than the fact-checked responses of the telephone journalists. Every paranoid excess received its credit: ‘The co-op was controlled by a secret committee of monks who’d been co-opted from the Teutonic Order of Buddhist Youth’.
House, standing alone, the solitary representative of all that Grove Road had been, was an affront to the anarchists. It mocked the steady destruction of so much of East London. It should, they felt, be mobilized, like the ghost of some turreted weapon of war (the sawteeth of the absent staircases looked like tank treads), in the battle against the M11 link-road that was being fought in Leytonstone. Solidity should imply solidarity. (Whiteread bumped into a few of the lads who had turned up with sledgehammers and drills to break into the interior of an exhibit that had no interior. That was its essence. If they had succeeded they would have reversed time and vanished forever.) This house of memory should receive equal honour with the tree houses occupied by eco-dissidents. And it would command more column inches in the subvertible broadsheets. Having the Turner prizewinner in the frontline would be like having Salman Rushdie walking out to face the bulldozers.
Firm allies of the arboreal squatters, the London Psychogeographical Association, published an editorial, Housey! Housey! (Newsletter No.5), which drew attention to a perceived irony in Tarmac sponsoring the delivery of Whiteread’s phantom when the trees of George Green were being hacked down by pre-dawn mercenaries to make way for yet more ‘motorway madness’. The alignment freaks, sustained by a vision of the city as a living, breathing body, were disturbed by the proximity of House to the Greenwich/St Anne’s, Limehouse/Meath Gardens axis: a shining path acknowledged, according to Katherine Heron (of Feary+Heron Architects), even by the planners of the London Docklands Development Corporation. ‘Surprisingly, the LDDC in its first and only published guide c.1982 chose to keep and accentuate the axis by not permitting any building along its length that would interrupt the view from one place to the other’. A nice theory – which lasted for as long as it took Olympia and York to wave their cheque book. The sighting of Canary Wharf, that misconceived acupuncture needle, induced a new magnetic field. The vulgarity of this false leyline was serviced by the erection of an acorn/omphalos on Haverfield Green (the paddock immediately to the south of Wennington Green in the Bow Chain). The acorn was yet another tribute to the Great Storm, part of a series of anonymous windfall carvings, reminiscent of Glynn Williams or Lee Grandjean on a bad day. Bucolic romanticism capable of delighting the shade of Peter Fuller and attracting the attention of freelance aerosol revisionists. Canary Wharf, the wooden acorn, and the Whiteread House were in alignment, a shadowline to the true path; debris adding conviction to the geomantic ambitions of the Bow planners.
The psychogeographers were as keen as the tabloid hacks to copyright the indignation of Sydney Gale, the final occupant, in his new and displaced status. The man wouldn’t go away. Not required on set, he hung about, polishing his soundbites. ‘If that is art then I’m Leonardo da Vinci.’ The money was what disturbed him, the figure of £40,000 floated by the press in an uncharacteristically modest understatement. Mr Gale couldn’t get his head around the idea that art money is funny money (as the K Foundation, in their confusion, were soon to prove). You don’t buy a new flat with this stuff. It’s theoretical, an equation that has to be balanced. It’s more like a signature or hallmark. Money is the guarantee of seriousness. It proves that the art is kosher. If you’re already famous, then it’s the material you work with, your medium. If you’re unknown and you cop an unexpected bundle from the Saatchis you are promoted directly into the heavy paper surveys. But you can’t spend this kind of cash. That would be like squeezing the juice from one of Zurbarán’s lemons. Contemporary art is about credit: the metamorphosis of money into power. To Mr Gale the Whiteread House was simply a haystack of unearned banknotes. The chilling whiteness of the finished sculpture, picked out of the dusk by the headlights of passing cars, reminded him of something in a graveyard; his family home travestied as a Monopoly token.
Whiteread kept a scrupulous video record of the process whereby her concept was brought to life. It’s obvious, watching this material as part of the historical record, that the real winners were the industrial contractors, the plant hire boys. House was a great deal, a doubleheader, for Stiffell’s and the McGrath Brothers: peel off the brickskin, then pop back three months later for a day’s work knocking down the most famous sculpture in England (with wall-to-wall TV coverage and high visibility logo).
The early footage in the video is privileged heartbreak: filtered October sunlight exposing the deserted shell to its subtly cruel warmth. Postmortem tableaux of arcane domesticity: contoured floorboards, collisions of insanely assertive wallpaper, gauze curtains of solidified dust. Redundant aspirations. The furniture, the gadgets, the bric-a-brac have been cleared – as if for a death. The house is in limbo. It is tempting to sentimentalize this state, how the soul of the building, the spirit that had evolved between family and place, was still present. A special light, synthesized by Whiteread’s camera, varnishes the details by which these people will be defined. It has to be excluded before the next stage of the work can begin, the windows have to be boarded over. Whiteread derives her power from her perception of this transitory place, the temporal entrapment of the unpeopled room. She understands how the exclusion of mundane light converts the room into a recording instrument, a machine for remembering, as well as the memory itself. I am presumptuous enough to assert that this would be the best time, a time of autobiographical reverie, before the collaborators move in – and the rush is triggered.
The pleasures of the chrysalis stage are visceral: brisk technicians spraying Locrete (the stuff they use to patch the cracks in the White Cliffs of Dover) over a gridwork of steel rods. The video allows us to remain inside the shell. The sense of how unpleasant it was to operate in this environment is acute: the wetness of the walls, the morbid fur, the organic weirdness of pod life that is obliterated by the sharp edges of the finished structure. The masked workers in their overalls are like a SWAT team summoned to some tragic address, the suicide of apocalyptic cultists or the cold store of a serial killer. They have been cursed with the task of building a pyramid from the inside, changing fate; starting from what is known and deranging it. The process is forbidden. House, as a work in progress, is science fiction – a Tardis regenerating itself from illegitimate evidence. The forensic crew are the exterminators of normalcy.
The dermabrading concluded, House stood exposed in a shallow, rubble-strewn declivity. It was now an art object: it had died, its flaws and faults smoothed over with Locrete (plus a splash of cosmetic white to enliven the greyness of the pallor). The virgin walls were an open invitation to the unsponsored care-of-the-community signwriters, the aerosol bandits. WOT FOR?, WHY NOT, and the brushed out subtext, HOMES FOR ALL BLACK + WHITE. The unedited book of the city – railway bridges, canal bridges, doorways – fills with a cacophony of quotations, obscenities, names of lost heroes. Photographed, they outlive their occasion: the innocence of George Davis, the guilt of DC Matthews. WOT FOR? is the riddle in the files of press cuttings.
House, an intrusion in the dim electro-magnetic field, brought disciples running, even those who knew nothing of its history, to Grove Road, to question the nature of interference. The enigmatic object was surrounded, probed, questioned. It was fed by flashbulbs, the tributes of photographers.
Convulsive therapy. The white ghost reversed, seen in negative, printed. Thousands of images. No longer singular: a terrace of reproductions, a city of mirrors. House, the paradigm of loss, was multiplied. Loss, carried away, became a general condition, a blight. Professionals, archivists, chemist-shop casuals. In the city twilight, a circle of blue sparks strobe House, dividing it into detail and longshot; analyzing and reassembling. The snapshots laid out, side by side, would stretch down Grove Road, repopulating the grass wildernesses, all the way to the point where the first flying bomb fell on London.
Cropped tight (no sky) to banish the dreary park, a formalist shot was deemed suitable for the label of Beck’s commemorative beer (best drunk before February 1995). The image has been so starkly edited that it could provoke a prosecution under the Trades Description Act: the park railings, aesthetically incorrect, have been doctored by computer to allow the sculpture to rise directly from the real pavement. No graffiti, no pedestrians. A Mondrian arrangement of rectangles and crossed lines, nicely judged asymmetry in greys and greens.
Moving back, and away, the shape of House is much more chaotic: futurist zig-zags, blue smears, the flatness of a septic tank. WARNING HAZART. The night trippers examine this work from the side. Only pedestrians, outside, on the pavement, see anything resembling the Beck’s portrait. There aren’t many of them. Some of the supplicants have been bussed in, culture punters with serious affiliations. It’s like the Mexican Day of the Dead (sponsored by Harvey Nichols) as the Gucci bags, Hermes scarves, leopardskin prints trip across the greensward to pay their respects to Whiteread’s sugar-dusted skull. They huddle together to listen to the spiel; fearful of the place and its chill atmosphere, the reek of the canal. Others, energetic anoraks, circumnavigate the perimeter, darting forward to touch the plaster, to admire the vertical coffins of children. There’s a favoured distance – about 25 yards back – for prolonged meditation: as if taking up a position at the bottom of the erased garden. Human figures are pegs in the half-dark, black against a powdering of snow on the peppery grass.
In a strange way, part of the strength of House was that it repelled those who were most closely associated with it. The achieved work was anonymous, it didn’t feel like a ‘Rachel Whiteread’. It had developed its own agenda, an urge towards obliteration, forgetfulness. House, at the death, was in league with Councillor Flounders and his iconoclasts.
While the friends of Artangel were manoeuvering for time, and the world was camping out to catch a glimpse of the millennial fetish, Whiteread concluded her video diary. Knowing of the structure’s death warrant, its fame, the pilgrims had a subdued air. The field was the preview for an execution: winter light. None of this mob would dream of paying a visit to a corrugated-fence terrace marked for demolition. One of those dusty, dangerous amputations with the unsophisticated colour clashes, their dangling wires. House gave the curious an excuse to quit their own pinched living spaces, a comfortable way of paying tribute to the spiritual bleakness of this part of London. A final visit to a sickbed, a rehearsed bereavement. They were well-behaved, sombre. They needed floral tributes to occupy their hands, wreaths to leave on the pavement.
There were far too many of them for Whiteread to risk stepping out of her car. She pulled up at a distance, bundled into a heavy jacket, keeping surveillance. If she walked across the grass to House, she’d be torn apart. A last roll-up, a whispered confession to the diary: ‘If I get out of the car, I’d get swamped by people’. Exiled from her own creation, she was in precisely the situation of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the pranksters of the K Foundation, who watched from a jeep parked by the riverside, while their hirelings called Whiteread out of the Tate Gallery beanfeast to face the media scrummage of the booby prize delivery.
Just then, by one of the correspondences by which the whole affair was characterized, an area of grass close to the house Whiteread was moving into in Hackney came under threat. The leaflet on the doormat. This green space also had a history of postwar prefabs, ‘temporary’ housing that lasted into the 1970s (demolished, finally, to make way for an unfenced rug of grass). Scarcely a park, nor even a public garden, it was nurtured, tended by the more civic-minded of the rate-payers, in the spirit more usually encountered in the dormitory villages of Middle England. Magistrates weeded and planted the borders. Children played on it in the summer evenings, within sight of their homes, and large mixed gatherings (all ages, weights, abilities) churned it to mud in their weekly football rituals. The evident needs and desires of this community were remorselessly ignored by a Labour council as entrenched in its prejudices and petty corruptions as their LibDem brothers across the border. It was decided that a terrace of houses would be shoehorned onto what the square dwellers, signalling their aspirations, liked to call ‘The Green’. The Nimbys (who were both surprised and delighted to see Whiteread turn up at their AGM) mounted a prolonged and effective campaign: snippets of local TV, camp-outs, a barrage of documentation, points of order, fighting funds, top of the range legal stationery. Which resulted in a few Gavin Stampist adjustments to the builders’ plans and the loss of a prized breathing space in a zone of perceived ‘decency’ between the termite horrors of Holly Street and the crack barracks that slouched away towards the canal. The energy exchange was almost too neat: Wennington Green witnessed the premature abortion of House and the reinstatement of ceremonial grassland – while a small corner of green Hackney was built over with houses which, in the limbo of construction, stand white and empty as any work of conceptual sculpture.
Across the canal, and a little to the south of Wennington Green, is another strip of seismically agitated earth now known as Meath Gardens: a site blessed by standing directly on the path of the Greenwich/Limehouse leyline. Meath Gardens, in an earlier incarnation, was the Victoria Park Cemetery – notorious bonepit, putrid with the multiple occupation of the indigenous underclass. A field of stench and pestilence regularly denounced in the progressive journals, it was the burial place of an Australian Aboriginal cricketer known as ‘King Cole’, who died in England during the first tour undertaken by a team from the southern hemisphere in 1868. A few years ago, watched by members of a Quantas-sponsored squad, a eucalyptus tree was planted to revive and commemorate this fable; a brass plaque was screwed to a wooden block to record the event. The plaque, along with its legend, disappeared within days of the ceremony. It has not been replaced. Such an act would be redundant. The empty block is useful for scraping off dog dirt. The tree, leaning crazily to the east, supported by a stave, is bent and brutalized. A damaged dreaming. But the validity of the King Cole myth gathers momentum even as the memory-prompts weaken. That is the nature of riparian London with its layers of deletions, resurrections. We are forced to become mediums for the lives and the buildings that have vanished. House, through its elimination, joins the company: remembered as an archetype when it is forgotten as an artwork.
House belongs with the invisible church of St Mary Matfelon in Whitechapel, a removed structure from which that district took its name. The church forged its doctrine from misfortune: the Great Tempest of 1362, the fire of 1880 which gutted the building in an hour, the fire-bombs of 1940, the tearing down of the ruin in 1952, the reduction to the status of ‘garden’ in 1966. All that is left of this dark history is a brick outline in the grass, a psychic barrier that repelled the vagrants who clustered around the solitary sepulchre until the Rowton House (Jack London’s ‘Monster Doss House’) was closed down, to take up its role as a fashionable derelict, a venue for rock promos and performance artists. We can only dowse the history of this location, through worship, plague, war, by contemplating aspects that are resistant to cameras and recording instruments.
A city of parkland phantoms, gravestones cleared to decorate the borders of market gardens. The perpetual metamorphosis of enclosed scraps of ground whose ‘story’ is scribbled over, re-cut, eternally present: the lost earth of Whitechapel Mount (‘considerably higher’ than the London Hospital), the synagogues that become Bengali supermarkets, the warehouses that produce and store unseen and unsaleable art. House is of this company. The worn squares of turf, like poorly laid cork tiles, that brand a rectangle on Wennington Green, invoke a provisional existence that is close to fiction; true crimes committed by imaginary criminals. Springheeled Jack and Sweeney Todd perverting the fantasies of BNP foot soldiers.
Eavesdropping on the conversations of those who came to debate the nature and essential mystery of the Whiteread House, it became clear to me that many felt, or wanted to believe, that the Grove Road terrace had been turned inside-out by a feat of gnostic prestidigitation – thereby creating a vacuum in which time itself could be held to ransom. House was a vessel packed with mantic darkness, instead of a peeled version of Sydney Gale’s family home. They were unwillingly to accept that we were seeing a nest of rooms from outside, with the interference of the bricks: a hologram privilege, a solid X-ray. The process of migration, inside to outside, was limited to the city. Surreptitiously, the tokens and sacred statues from the centre were being banished to the suburbs, so that Temple Bar finds itself marooned in Theobald’s Park near Waltham Abbey, and the Euston Arch is broken up and dumped in the River Lea. Monuments were dug out, filched, to add class to Green Belt estates. The centre loses its signifiers as it is colonized by a cult of phoney ruralism.
Wennington Green, a year on from the House episode, has retreated into a fugue of complacent entropy. The glow of an Indian summer casts a ribcage of charcoal shadows from the surviving trees. The Arcadian conceits of the politicians are justified, for a few hours, by a complicity of light. The palpable absence of House validates the grove-like nature of the park. An ash tree confirms the edge of the secret garden. The tree has a deep gash in its bark, revealing a second skin – surgical dressings wadded into a wound. Wasps, tipsy with autumnal liquor, levitate above an offering of glassy white grapes, arranged at the tree’s base. They are vile, these grapes, like a tray of artificial eyes offered as sweeteners to the breath. Disguising their presence – in homage to Carl Andre – is a heap of bricks; and on the bricks an obscure collection of copper coins. In the long grass, above thick roots, where the motor-mower couldn’t get in, is a broken bottle of Foster’s Ice. Random mementoes. Cod sponsorship. Grave goods. There are no other clues from which to uncode this al fresco celebration: no sightings, no culprits. We do not know, or need to know, who came here to honour the anniversary of Whiteread’s extinguished vision.
The full text forms part of the book Rachel Whiteread: House (Phaidon Press Limited 1995)