Adriaan van Heerden is an artist and photographer whose work has been exhibited in London, Barcelona, Kyoto and Singapore, and who was nominated for the ArtGemini Prize last year. His latest project Unreal City is a photographic exploration of contemporary London through the prism of the poem The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. We spoke to him to find out more about the project, for which he is currently crowdfunding to publish as a book.
When did you start photographing London? When did the project start?
My London archive dates back to early 2008. A few of the pictures in “Unreal City” date from that time, although most were taken in the last eighteen months or so.
In July 2016 I started working with a challenging new artistic adviser, because I was aiming to do something different in my photography. Before then I had mainly focused on wildlife, travel and landscape photography. In the course of the next year I experimented with a number of ideas and eventually I came across the “Elmet” book project, which was the result of a collaboration between the poet Ted Hughes and the photographer Fay Godwin. I have always been interested in poetry (and even performed some of my own at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden), so it seemed like a promising avenue to pursue. Add to that my background in philosophy and the fact that I had London on my doorstep, and suddenly doing something with “The Waste Land” became the perfect focus for the new direction I was looking for. I formulated the main concept for the project in the summer of 2017, based on some pictures from my archive, and pitched it to my publicist and my artistic adviser in October last year . They both liked it, and so I started to develop the ideas in more detail.
What was your link with T.S. Eliot and modernism? Has that always informed your work?
I wouldn’t say that modernism was a conscious influence as such, or an ideal framework I was aspiring to. Postmodernism was all the rage when I was studying for my Master’s in philosophy in South Africa, and although I wouldn’t call myself a postmodernist, enough of this exposure has remained for my approach to be more open-ended and playful than a “modernist manifesto” might suggest. However, a lot depends on one’s definition of “modernism”, and there were of course different manifestations of modernism.
If “modernism” is understood as an attempt to break completely with the past and reinvent forms of artistic expression (think of Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new” – although this phrase itself was hardly new, dating as it does from the Shang Dynasty in China, 1766–1753 BC), then it wouldn’t provide an accurate description of what I was trying to achieve. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Eliot’s own modernist manifesto (which he articulated in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) entailed a new poetics which consisted of a constant reappropriation of the “tradition”, a renewed conversation with the great cultural achievements of the past, in order to rediscover the timeless values which he believed had a regenerative effect on the human spirit.
In this second sense, my project can be seen to belong to a modernist paradigm along the lines charted by Eliot. My objective was not to redefine the medium of photography as such, but to have a “photographic conversation” with The Waste Land by using existing (even classical) forms and processes to communicate ideas in thought-provoking, playful and surprising new ways. The challenge of engaging with Eliot’s text – which has by now become part of the “tradition” – has not only influenced the pictures themselves, but also the design of the book. Just as there are several different voices in The Waste Land, a variety of styles and subjects are also represented in Unreal City. Cityscapes, architecture, street photography, portraits of people, the juxtaposition of old and new – these have all been mixed into a single creative melting-pot. And the book is being designed to reflect the fact that the pictures interpret words written nearly a century ago. Suggesting contemporaneity as well as archival qualities has been challenging, but immensely rewarding. For example, we chose Munken Pure paper for the images section of the book, as it provides an archival feel which fits well with the period of the poem’s composition.
And so I suppose one might say that the book embodies a strange kind of classical-modernist-postmodernist amalgam.
How do you relate The Waste Land to today’s London? Did you try to express this in the composition of your photos, or did it come afterwards?
Yes, my intention was to view London as it is today through the lens of The Waste Land, although I would have to qualify this by saying that it is my own transmutation of The Waste Land which forms the basis of the juxtaposition, and not an attempt to determine what Eliot’s own visual take might have been. Bernard O’Donoghue, in his essay for the book, and with his usual laser-like perspicacity, describes my process as one of “creative mismatching”. For example, my triptych of pictures which accompanies the first few words of the poem, “April is the cruellest month”, retraces the final moments of Stephen Lawrence’s life (2018 was the 25th anniversary of his murder in April 1993). Eliot himself could of course not have known anything about Stephen Lawrence, but the juxtaposition highlights a poignant fact about the daily lives of many of London’s inhabitants today: the tragic waste of life that takes place on a daily basis as a result of crime, racism, sexism, neglect, abuse, etc.
So the pictures are not a straightforward illustration of the text of the poem (as the photographs in the “Elmet” project perhaps are), but rather a creative transmutation. Having said that, the pictures do reflect many of the themes of the poem: a general feeling of alienation; people’s inability to connect to each other in meaningful ways; the cruel demands of the City; the failure of religion to provide comfort in this broken world; and the apparently unbridgeable divide between rich and poor. But interestingly, in the process of giving expression to these ideas, the pictures started to create a language of their own, and certain visual motifs were created in the pictures which are not in the text of the poem. One example is the “towers of the rich versus towers of the poor” motif, which arguably hinged the book into a more radical political stance than that occupied by Eliot’s poem.
Another fascinating byproduct of this process has been what I call the geology of meaning which appears in some of the pictures. For example, my picture for the line “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept” is of the J.P. Morgan building in Canary Wharf, shot through the frame of an outdoor light installation. Several layers of meaning are simultaneously present in this image. The original reference is to Psalm 137:1: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Eliot transposed this verse to an individual experience on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and I in turn transposed Eliot’s line (using some artistic license) to refer to the old Lehman Brothers building (which was taken over by J.P. Morgan after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008). And so the idea that we are exiles in our own city starts to permeate the photograph: an exile which can be said to result from the high levels of income inequality in the city. More specifically, the juxtaposition of text and image suggests a sadness resulting not so much from the demise of a capitalist colossus as from the effects of reckless capitalism on vast numbers of the world’s population.
Have you always been taking photos of urban landscapes? What has been the focus of your previous work (photography or otherwise?)
Growing up in South Africa with a zoologist father, a love of nature and wildlife was programmed into my DNA, and one of my greatest joys is still being on safari, a camera with a long lens at the ready, and experiencing the thrill of not knowing what I’m going to encounter next. Before this current project my focus was mainly on wildlife, travel and landscapes, but all the while I was also taking pictures of cityscapes, doing some street photography and taking portraits of people in urban environments, and so cities have always featured in my work to some extent. In 2015 I was artist in residence at a gallery in Kyoto, and my pictures of that city include cityscapes, landscapes, wildlife and street photography, so I suppose my awareness of nature helps me to create a more holistic view of urban environments.
The main difference in terms of what I’m doing now, compared to how I was operating and pitching myself two years ago, is that my work is now more project-oriented, with more of a narrative that binds the different pictures into a coherent whole of some sort. Looking ahead, one of the projects that I currently have in development would entail a juxtaposition of urban and rural scenarios, once again in a poetic context.
What do you see for the future of cities, and in particular for London?
There are of course a myriad factors that influence how we experience life in London today, and each of these strands could have a different trajectory into the future that would make life more or less bearable for the majority of people living in the city. Meaningful and satisfying employment, access to good quality healthcare, opportunities for self-actualisation, pollution, climate change, gentrification, surveillance, social control, exposure to nature, income inequality and people’s level of empathy across social divides are just some of these factors. The idealist in me would like to see improvements on all these fronts, but the realist acknowledges that this is probably unlikely to happen.
In her Editor’s Introduction to “Tales of Two Londons: Stories From a Fractured City”, which was published in March 2018, Claire Armitstead writes that life in London feels fractured and embattled as rarely before in peacetime. Brexit, the high homicide rate, moped crime and a number of terrorist attacks have all contributed their share of this pain, but perhaps the starkest symbol of the horror is the burnt-out husk of Grenfell Tower.
Although there is no graphic violence in “Unreal City”, the book does, I believe, shine a light on some of the horrors that we encounter in the city at the moment, and which occur in so many other cities around the world: poverty, homelessness, income inequality, racism, sexism, loneliness, the cauterisation of compassion in order to survive in this hostile environment, desperation, gentrification, a search for meaning in sex, crime and consumerism, etc. In that sense the vision of the book is dark, as is “The Waste Land” itself, but there is a glimmer of hope at the end, if only we can confront these horrors and start dealing with them effectively. However, the odds are stacked in favour of the very wealthy (the “ultra high net worth individuals”), who have in effect become free riders on the rest of us, and so I don’t think things will improve until governments around the world start figuring out how to repatriate and tax the estimated 26 trillion US dollars that are stashed away in offshore tax havens, and use a lot of that money to create more and better opportunities for those who don’t currently have them.
In surveying this “waste land” landscape, my book poses a number of questions and challenges. I will refer here to the two epigraphs from the book. One is a quotation from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, in which the narrator quotes Kurtz’s last words: “The horror! The horror!” This quotation is the one that Eliot originally wanted to use for “The Waste Land” before Pound convinced him to use one from Petronius instead. By reinstating Conrad, I suggest that the horrors we see around us in the “unreal city” are not merely caused by random tragic events, but are in many instances the result of our own heart of darkness: our failure to show compassion and to act in decisive ways to avoid or alleviate the suffering of others. Which brings me to my other epigraph, the motto of Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council: “Quam bonum in Unum habitare”, which is adapted from the opening words of the Latin version of Psalm 133: “How good it is to dwell in unity.” The irony is palpable.
For more information on Adriaan van Heerden, go here.
To pre-order a copy of Unreal City, visit his GoFundMe page.
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