Thames Gateway Project
“We have a unique opportunity - now and for future generations. The Thames Gateway Strategy we are launching today shows how we are investing £6 billion across the Thames Gateway to create sustainable communities, stimulate economic development, deliver sustainable homes, enhance the local environment, and restore historic town centres."
So announced the ex-deputy Prime Minister John Prescott on a visit to Gravesend with Tony Blair in March 2005, launching a major central government initiative. Besides the claim to deliver the Sustainable Communities policy (ODPM, 2003), the Thames Gateway regeneration offered an exceptional opportunity to examine our relationship to landscape during an historic period of change. The regeneration zone encompasses a 40-mile corridor of land in south east England running alongthe river Thames from Tower Hamlets in London through Kent and Essex to the estuary mouth where it meets the North Sea.
The ‘Thames Gateway Project’ research fellowship set out with the aim to engage with this landscape through the medium of painting – a tradition where we are accustomed to find evidence of our shifting attitudes in relation to landscape. The objective of this research was to develop new forms for landscape-based painting in response to this new environment. This demanded the need for a critical examination of the conventions of picture making, defining its limits and revealing the fissures where this new work could flourish. The challenge was to make paintings that engage the viewer in a full sensory experience.
My strategy was to place the emphasis on practice and root it directly in the changing landscape. Work was carried out in collaboration with Oxford Archaeology, who provided on-site access to a number of locations within the Thames Gateway. Sites of work have included a flood relief scheme at Washlands Basin, Dagenham, the A2 road rerouting at Gravesend, Kent, at Woolwich Teardrop, Woolwich Arsenal and at the London Gateway container port development on the Thames estuary at Shellhaven, Essex.
Commercial excavation sites are characterised on one hand by the materiality of the construction site and on the other by a tangible sense of temporality. They are rapidly changing landscapes, where briefly future function and evidence of past human activity fuse. I worked to embody these qualities in the painting.
Since the basis of all work was an individual response to sites my methodology needed to function as a tool to bring an objective element into the creative process. In dialogue with archaeologists I adapted their fieldwork procedures to focus on the impact the material environment exerted on my creative decision making process. An anxiety about how ‘change’ could be communicated in a painting resolved, as I understood its role to be a spur to bring about change in my own discipline.
Research has resulted in the realization of two related groups of paintings; Pit Paintings and Wall Spines. Both groups benefited from a recasting of the support (stretchers) for painting to a more central role, the use of organic form found in archaeological features and the opening up of the paintings to give access to the interior. Attention was brought to bear on technical challenges in making robust and physically compelling painted surfaces. In combination these qualities involved the viewer in an encounter that initiates visually but leads, through a structured perceptual route to a physical register. Significantly, this meant mobilizing the viewer in relation to the painting, encouraging movement from edge to edge, and to peer inside the open body of the works. These paintings place the viewer in an active mode, defining it from the static and passive characteristics of an encounter with image-based painting.
As research momentum gathered I became increasingly aware that the intentions of the new works connected with a current of thinking in archaeology, architecture and the fine arts. Here an ambition is growing to accommodate, record and communicate lived experience, proposing an alternative to the image-based culture that dominates contemporary life.
The Thames Gateway Project is an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts. In collaboration with Oxford Archaeology and Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London. 2006 - 2009.