Being in London and trying to paint outside, I am noticing the un-locality of this city.
London is disentangled from locality. London is transient – global.
The landscape has been so altered by building, by humans! The non-human geography of this place feels removed, covered up by brick, metal, cement, tarmac. The ground underneath London is dirt.
Any non-human physical landscape has been destroyed or edited.
As a result of this, I am struggling to find a focus as to where I want to paint in this city. There are thousands of public parks, and around 8.4 million trees in the city*, where on earth do I begin!?
The fact that I am noticing this reveals something about my practice. It tells me that I am drawn to paint in places where I feel the human and the non-human are entangled. To give an example, I begun a painting series back in January because I was interested in how human memory and emotion can be connected to a majority non-human (‘natural’ as I used to say) place. And whilst I was studying at uni, I painted the beech woodland on campus because I was interested in how the shapes of (non-human) trees inspired (human) medieval cathedral architecture, and also how (non-human) woodlands can produce sacred atmospheres for human experience to attach religious culture to (evidenced in ancient English sacred groves). Both of these plein air interests are because of a mingling between human and non-human existence.
I can therefore ascertain that when I began working in a London studio this week, my instinct when looking for a place to paint outdoors, was to search for a place where the human and the non-human mingle, coexist.
Instead, so far, I have found a place where humans mingle and coexist with predominantly other humans! Any non-human existence is narrated, controlled, limited, curated by humans. I tried to make a diagram below to explain what I mean:
There are however elements of the city that are non-human. I just think you have to look harder to find them. These are:
The river Thames Flowing for thousands of years.
The climate and weather The seasons, repeating cyclically for thousands of years. The weather is an iconic trait of London! It’s grey days, the rain, the mild summers and mild winters. The wind! David Abram reminds us in ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ not to forget the wind, as a non-human entity that surrounds us.
Pigeons! Evolved and adapted to thrive in the city.
Trees and parks Some trees are ancient – perhaps I could go and paint them? Any local to Bankside Hotel? Some trees are ancient. The closest one online I could find to Bankside Hotel is a 20 minute walk near St. Pauls tube station. Each park must have a history. And Richmond park and Hamstead Heath have parts that are old, quite untouched. The more central, the more the parks have been edited, planted, curated, adjuested by culture, fashions, people.
I am reading about the most natural places in London, and thinking, perhaps London (a human intention) is entangled with the non-human in ways that are more complicated, lie deeper, go further back in time, than I am used to. Perhaps, the locality of London is further back in time. Today’s modern London has lost connection to place, being a globalised city, with people moving transiently through a human narrative that floats above physical place. I was reading this morning the history behind the names of places in London, even the name London has a history that could be traced far back in time, and refers to the river. But the way this history is told is as if human events have been imposed on the landscape, acted on it.
I think I have lots more to investigate on this topic. More layers to peel back. I am going to continue reading Peter Ackroyd’s book ‘Thames Sacred River’ which is giving some interesting history to London.