Recreational Grounds V
Even if you aren’t a resident of South-East London, you are likely to have read about the Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle or at the very least, seen it in photographs. What has been written about it over the last two decades hasn’t exactly been through rose-tinted glasses. Dubbed one of the most notorious estates in the UK, in 1997 it was there - in an attempt to demonstrate how the Labour Government would work to alleviate poverty in Britain - Tony Blair chose to make his first speech as Prime Minister. Regarded as no longer fit for purpose Southwark council are in the process of demolishing it block by block to. make way for 3,000 new homes by 2032.
It is within this context of long-standing precarity that the Aylesbury has inspired and hosted the artist-led project ‘Recreational Grounds’, initiated by Tim Ralston, Fiona Grady and Scott Miles in 2018 . Temporary group exhibitions of site-responsive work have become a familiar presence within the disused car park of Wendover House, part of the sprawling Brutalist estate that faces street level and connects it to the wider community.
When it was completed in 1977 the Aylesbury Estate was the embodiment of modernist principles and progressive urban planning. Designed by esteemed architect Hans Peter Felix, the vast complex of buildings enshrined a Utopian vision of social housing; offering in excess of 10,000 people homes, it was one of Europe’s largest projects of its kind. The estate becoming marred by criminal activity quickly compounded structural issues with flooding and vermin and it became a symbol of social problems, neglect and decay.
It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to imagine how the tabloid press has categorised the Aylesbury. Publicly condemned to be a ‘sink estate’ it was the job of New Labour to intervene, firstly through the New Deal for Communities, followed by the intervention of the Creation Trust who sought to ensure that residents saw advantages from regeneration in the area. Despite these measures, tension around the sustainability of the building and the scale of the problems persisted within and outside its walls. The estate is now going through one of the biggest programmes of regeneration in the country.
The walk from Elephant and Castle tube quickly reveals the pace of change where building hoardings line most streets. An aggressive vision of what is to come - and which should be noted was promised of the Aylesbury and campaigned for by residents - is compelling to read but not so easy to digest. Builders and diggers lie behind these facades, not the imagined communities and infrastructure. So whilst in reality this change may not be too long way off, and is such a familiar sight it often can fail to register, it should. The area surrounding The Aylesbury Estate currently feels restless, uncertain and slightly fictitious: reiterated and brought into sharper focus on arriving at Wendover House, where residents have lived this transitory state for quite some time.
More recently, this ambiguity of people and place has guided the curators and artists involved in ‘Recreational Grounds’. This latest edition of the site-specific project was curated by Martin Mayorga and Vanessa Murrell of DATEAGLE ART and presents work by 12 artists seeking to reclaim the space and mark its dissolution. No formal legitimacy from the local authority or residents was sought but according to the curators, residents seem to accept the exhibitions that come and go over their short three-day runs.
My reservations about a lack of significant community consultation or sustained dialogue about ‘Recreational Grounds’ were tempered by the care taken over the space the artists inhabited. Strict parameters laid out by the initiators of the project stipulated that no artwork could negatively impact the building, recognising that whilst the space was open and public, the car park is part of a wider configuration of private spaces belonging to the residents.
Adherence to these criteria translated into a dynamic and sensitive exhibition of work that negotiated the space through innovative methods of display. It became clear that both curators and the artists had become the car park’s temporary custodians and despite its challenging light levels and more than unpleasant smells in places, had developed an affinity to the specificity of its architectural details and history as well as its symbolism of wider political and social issues of gentrification, urban change and notions of home.
Work by Japanese artist Nana Sawada probed questions of how we navigate cities. Her installation comprised of strips of fluro-yellow tape that mimicked lines used to demarcate space and control traffic on roads. Despite their carefully choreographed positioning during the installation, over the course of the weekend they had come away from the car park’s ceiling, hanging loosely and transforming them into something celebratory and decorative.
Jim Woodall’s concrete sculptures were a subtle and thoughtful intervention. Created from concrete and plastic to resemble the material of the building, a group of the column-esque structures rested discreetly against a corner as if they had long held that position and were an extension of the fabric and design of the building. They conveyed both a sense of permanence and fragility: an apt metaphor for the anxious position and conflicting perceptions of those living in and around this Zone 1 estate.
The works I found most affecting were those that most directly addressed the human conditions and personal stories of residents living in places like the Aylesbury. Helena de Pulford’s large-scale wax sculpture which burnt continuously during daylight hours provided the centre point of the exhibition and I am told, the focal point of the opening where people gravitated towards the heat and light: a primal compulsion for survival and the seeking of comfort.
Sculptures of by Poppy Whatmore and Michael Wall referenced domesticity in their use or replicas or familiar household objects and structures. Playful and engaging, Michael Wall’s installation ‘Scene 1’ brought together a series of brightly coloured digitally printed sculptures inspired by 1980’s geometric abstraction that punctuated the exhibition with their vivid interpretations of table and chair-like compositions.
In her installation ’Ziggurat’, Whatmore used reproductions of the estate’s front doors to form an anthropomorphic shape. The uniformity of the doors were part of the architect’s original intention for the building to promote commonality and community. Whatmore’s reimagining of them not only tackles the current status of the Aylesbury Estate and its residents but felt like a foreboding metaphor for post-Brexit Britain. Situated at the entrance to the exhibition, the installation seemed to offer a welcoming role, ushering you in through its identifiable constituent parts but it wasn’t long before it revealed a confrontational nature. Resembling a staircase removed from context and without a fixed direction, it imbued futility and frustration.
Images courtesy of Dateangle Art