First published in International Times on Dec 17 2013
I’ve read with concern about your proposal for a new work of art on the site of Heygate Estate.
It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with art exploring local areas that have gone through such a traumatizing experience as mass eviction.
Heygate, after it had been almost fully emptied, was turned into an imaginative playground by a group called Urban Forest. Where ‘regeneration’ is often a word used by developers as a euphemism for ‘social cleansing’, Urban Forest offered a genuine vista of regeneration by planting trees on the estate and growing food. At one of their many in situ events, I read a poem based on the depopulation of the mansions and the artist Richard Wentworth gave an inspirational talk. Many other artists and intellectuals have been drawn to Heygate. It has become a symbol of the social cleansing that is happening everywhere, a symbol of social injustice.
To object to a work of art must be a carefully considered act, as otherwise one may be allying oneself with a long line of philistines, ignoramuses and spoilsports.
However, to create a work of art – especially a public work of art that is to be associated in the public mind with such an important issue as Heygate – one really has to know what’s at stake.
My objection is twofold: 1) the idea of turning one of the emptied mansion blocks into a pyramid is surely ill-conceived. Not only is the pyramid a symbol of hierarchy, it is also a symbol associated with freemasonry, a secret activity which is widespread among local councils and in many areas of the construction trade. What happened between the poor residents of the Heygate Estate and Southwark Council/Lend Lease was nothing less than a battle. It was a battle decisively won by the council and the developers. Listen to the voice of a former resident whose parents lived in the very block that is to be shape-changed from rectangle to pyramid:
“We were the first people in, at the start of 1974,” John Colfer said. “My father made the home a home, fitted new floors, everything. My parents never planned to leave the estate. So when you’re talking about using those same materials to make a pyramid, you just think: what is there to show that this was a well-loved home? These are our memories being turned into an artwork.”
2) that the proposal might be sponsored by the developer in question, Lend Lease, is also very worrying. Artangel has met objections to the scheme by claiming that it does not wish to take sides, that the work of art will be neutral. The thing is: if the work of art is sponsored by the winning side of the battle – the wealthy powerful side – it cannot be neutral. A Lend Lease sponsored pyramid on the site of Heygate will be a monument not to the former residents of Heygate but to the people who evicted them. Aesthetic airbrushing at best, crass triumphalism at worst. As it happens, the Southwark/Lend Lease deal has been discredited by a leaked council report as one of the most corrupt land deals in living memory: http://betterelephant.org/blog/2013/04/09/report-uncovers-corruption-at-the-elephant/
By a sheer co-incidence, my own imaginatively flighty poem on Heygate from 2012 includes the line: “Did you know the anti-pyramidal city had been built by gypsies riding on Indian elephants?”
I wish to make clear that I have no vendetta against a prestigious arts organization such as Artangel or an outstanding artist such as Mike Nelson. It is the idea that is objectionable. I appeal to the artists and angels behind the proposal to withdraw it.
No one doubts that the project will be artistic, but it is highly unlikely to be angelic. Artangel has not, in this case, given enough thought to the suffering of the victims of social cleansing or to the symbolism of the pyramid.
Photo: Max Reeves