words William Wiles
William Wiles took a rare opportunity to see London through the eyes of an artist.
It nearly didn’t happen. The night before Richard Wentworth’s Tate-to-Tate London walk, terrorists attempted to bomb the Tiger Tiger nightclub on Haymarket. A large chunk of the West End was shut down, almost stranding the British artist who was coming in from Oxford. But that’s the kind of unexpected urban intervention that is grist to Wentworth’s mill. “A strange place, the street,” he says. “If it suits you, you can leave a bomb in it; you can sleep on it…”
The street is Wentworth’s muse. He has long been fascinated by found objects, handwritten notices and other ways in which the formal, organised veneer of our shared space is scratched to reveal an improvised vernacular below. In his hands the city becomes a mass of coincidences and unintended consequences, but he stresses that it remains a completely human enterprise. “I want you to look for things that aren’t the result of a decision,” he says. “You’ll be surprised, there really isn’t anything.”
This walk between Tate Britain in Pimlico and Tate Modern in Southwark was a one-off curio, coinciding with the artist’s work appearing in the Global Cities show at Tate Modern. The route avoided the tourist spots of the river and struck through the bolus of railway lines and trunk routes inland. Wentworth is fascinated by the violence the railways did, punching through terraces at oblique angles and leaving behind lonely fragments. The massive scale of the engineering needed to bring trains into the centre and to bridge the river impresses him – he repeatedly stresses the risks involved, the fabulous sums of money expended, the raw tonnage of the bricks and iron, the armies of sweating Irish labourers. And the weight of the city impresses even on a much smaller scale. We stop by a water trough, now serving as a neglected flowerbox, carved out of a single piece of stone and moved into place without machinery.
The water was for the horses and cattle that came into the city. When the Victorians were savaging the south bank of the Thames, the river was a vast industrial enterprise of commerce and freight. You would no more walk along it, Wentworth says, than you would walk your dog across the runways of Heathrow.
We stop opposite the Imperial War Museum. Nearby, a worker empties the change from a parking meter. “The modern equivalent of a lamplighter,” Wentworth says. He likes to stress precedents for what we think of as modern activities. The Imperial War Museum occupies the site of a mental hospital where members of the public liked to go in and look at the crazies. Now they’re looking at displays about the Falklands and the Holocaust, but Wentworth feels that the real heir to Bedlam is Tate Modern, the middle classes’ favoured venue for a weekend dose of insanity courtesy of Francis Bacon or Gilbert & George. Or, indeed, his own work.
Walking with Richard Wentworth was between Tate Britain and Tate Modern, London, 29 June www.tate.org.uk