Saturday, May 3, 2014

Tannaz Oroumchi: 'Hectified' at Curious Duke Gallery, Whitecross Street

Mapping London is a fool's errand.  Sure you can catalogue the rough geometry and index off street names, but this doesn't get you any closer to understanding what the city is. London is 2000 years of wonderfully gunked up, unplanned human muck; Saxon hunting trails made permanent by imperial Roman road builders, streets spiralling out from them like bacterial growths, a million tangled pissy alleys growing out of that.  Capturing all this on paper is madness.  Your Google Maps and your London A-Z merely diagram out the space, trying hard to boil down fuzzy anarchy into comprehension - but these maps can't capture the mood of a place; the baked in sleaze of Soho; the cool authoritarianism of Kensington or the enterprising fragility of Brick Lane.

Tannaz Oroumchi obviously understands these limitations, her work exhibited in Curious Duke Gallery chopping and screwing the streets London to brilliant effect.  Under her eye the street layout twists into spider-webs, computer generated graphs, bacterial infections and micro-printed circuit boards. London transforms into a pulsating, electric organism, the apparent permanence of concrete and steel revealed as flexible, temporary and, above all, manipulable.

Reading the Rosetta Stone of the City, transforming static into fluid motion and exposing the psychological layers and contours of urban life, is an idea (if you'll excuse the pun) very much up my street.  This field of thought is known as psychogeography, defined by Guy Debord as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals."  Planting its roots deeply in the Marxist anti-authoritarianism of the French Situationists, the discipline of psychogeography seeks to chip away the 'taught' methods of navigating urban space, underlining the importance of deviation from established paths, exploration and reclamation of restricted spaces and the ability to emotionally analyse architecture and street layout.

In Oroumchi's work the city is stripped of its labels, the tangle of London streets revealed as a crazy mandala - the product of thousands of years of unguided, unconscious human endeavour.  The work reveals the biological nature of London, and how it frustrates attempts at applying systems of order to it - something that makes this city more human and honest.  The grids of New York, Los Angeles et al are designed for efficiency and ease of commerce; maps of capital.  They're efficient and slick in a way London can never be -  foe example barely a quarter of central London's streets are used for traffic circulation, as opposed to 90% of New York's.  

That London is a knot inevitably means planners are tempted to untangle it; notable candidates being Christopher Wren post-Great Fire of London with his vision of a London subdivided into grand Parisian boulevards and Corbusian post-war architects, whose ambitions to wrestle London into becoming a 'car city', with the Strand pummelled into a motorway and any extant pedestrians frowned upon as a vestigial aberration.

It's a nightmare vision, imagine the entire city in the style London Wall and Upper Thames Street. The maps on display in Hectified elegantly refute the ordering of cities, finding  beauty in the snaking, sinuous lines, and throwing up their own subtle analyses of the motions of people around the metropolis.  Focal points quickly become apparent; St Paul's Cathedral has a peculiar gravity, it's historicity sending ripples into the street plans around it.  Similarly, the parts where the tangle doesn't intrude become marked out as pure, sacred spaces.  The reality of Smithfield Meat Market is a grubby place of smashed pallets, bloody smocks and bald, racist men, but here it's appropriately revealed as an oasis of permanence - after all meat has been sold here for a thousand years or so.

When you see these maps your first instinct is to try and place yourself within them. Usually the easiest way to start is with the Thames, counting the bridges across, then winding your way up through the streets until you find yourself.  It's irresistible, and this simple act makes the work almost auto-analytical. My barometer of appreciation of art involves finding something of yourself in the work; an echo of your individual passions and philosophies in it. In pinpointing your location you are you have to think about your personal relation to the city, to divorce yourself from boundaries, districts and names and analyse the layout of the streets around you.  That this occurs instinctively makes the work a success, achieving its aim of throwing new light on London without any prodding explanation or lecture.

What Oroumchi demonstrates with Hectified is the mystery and joy of London; an anatomical study of a city achieved without killing it.  She lays bare the maze of gloomy side-streets, bustling arterial traffic routes and semi-abandoned leafy squares that give London its vibrancy and character.  When you walk through the streets of London, seeing imperial Portland Stone give way to the stained clay of London Stock Bricks, enjoying the dichotomy of 16th century churches abutting the glittering green glass of 20th century finance, marvelling at something so bizarre as a Roman pavement sunk in a secret crypt, or a 3000 year old monument bristling out of the Thames, you should understand that London as a whole is a manifestation of humanity, a patchwork blanket created by the consensus of millions upon millions of human beings for thousands of years.  

Oroumchi's Hecitified lays all that this out simply, clearly and without ego.  I very, very much enjoyed it.

Hectified is at Curious Duke Gallery, Whitecross Street until May 31st

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