At 8am in the morning, the normally bustling Oxford Street is remarkably quiet and empty, with little activity but street-sweepers and rubbish collectors clearing away the debris from the day before, drivers in vans delivering new goods to restock the shops, cafes and restaurants for the day ahead and commuters spilling out of the underground stations. It feel like the calm before the storm and there are even still homeless men asleep in doorways. Two hours later, the homeless have moved somewhere quieter, shop doors are flung open, shutters are lifted up, music and lights are switched on and the few waiting shoppers enter the retail temples. This is the start – after a few hours the pavements are so busy that no-one can rush along them and the crowds of pedestrians fight with the traffic at the pedestrian crossings.
Urban places are always in transition, changing through the seasons, the time of day and even the weather. Oxford Street is very different during a torrential thunderstorm to a warm summer’s day and, further down the street a more substantial transition may be taking place where a gap between remaining buildings awaits the construction of a new modern and larger addition to its neighbours. Cities are always changing, and that is what keeps them alive. A city which does not change will die or become a museum.
If any gallery is going to hold an exhibition on urban space, it should be Parafin, a short walk from Oxford Street itself, with the exhibition “Transient Space” showing work from six contemporary artists on the city in transition “critical, observational, participatory, performative” in a gallery space which itself has a large window facing onto the city and the ever-changing life in the street outside.
The artists ask questions about how cities like London have transitioned into what they are today. Cities have layers of history, buildings are created, change and are destroyed and streets and spaces are cluttered with signs and surveillance cameras. Above all, the character of cities is shaped by the people in them, whether through their activities, their absence or through adding their own personalities through posters and graffiti.
Signage is everywhere, cluttering up the townscape, sometimes helpful, sometimes redundant, sometimes contradictory and often repetitious until it disappears at a critical moment. Keith Coventry reinterprets the locational signage and maps found in shopping centres and council housing estates in his “Ontological Paintings”, while Mike Ballard uses old hoardings for his sculptures and paintings, symbolising both the role of hoardings to separate private and public space and the imaginative way people adopt them with posters, stickers and graffiti. Perhaps because they are transient, they are used in a more informal and creative way than permanent buildings and structures.
Eerie, quiet streets and buildings at night, with lights blazing but no-one in them are shown in Tim Head’s collages of the photographs he took walking through dark, empty London streets at night in 1981 and 1982 while Abigail Reynolds’ origami-like collages using published images from books, atlases, tourist guides and encyclopaedias of places at different points in their history, reflecting on the layering of time that makes up our cities and how some parts of cities change considerably, while others hardly change at all, apart from the fashions and transport of the day.
Reminding us that cities are about people who bring them to life and that the views of cities change as people move through them, Melanie Manchot’s “Tracer” show videos from runners through the city, using long shots reminiscent of the surveillance cameras which are everywhere, (but do they make our cities any safer?)
Finally, lying on the floor and propped up against the walls are discarded remnants of 20th century tower blocks. Nathan Coley’s “Parade Sculptures” are derived from photographs of housing blocks partially destroyed by terrorism, war or UN-sanctioned military action, but they could have destroyed by other means. Coley’s sculptures are mounted on poles so that they can be carried aloft in protest marches. Although Coley could never anticipate it, by coincidence these could also relate to the terrible and tragic events at Grenville Tower, only a few miles from the gallery.