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Interview: Adriaan van Heerden — Unreal City

I Have Walked Among The Lowest Of The Dead, Adriaan van Heerden

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 [2017]. They both liked it, and so I started to develop the ideas in more detail.

Death Had Undone So Many

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.

“Mixing Memory and Desire”, taken in Soho, London.

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.

The Black Clouds Gathered Far Distant

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.

“Unreal City”, New Cross, London.

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.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.

Spotlight on: Rough Trade Books


The London Magazine has long been a champion of emerging writers and independent publishers, stretching back to the 1950s and 60s, when young writers like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes found a home in the pages of the then newly re-launched volumes of the magazine.

We want this tradition to continue, and given the renaissance of new independent publishers, we have decided to launch a monthly spotlight feature that promotes the best of innovative contemporary writing across the UK and beyond.

First up is Rough Trade Books, who have recently made waves with a striking series of 12 pamphlets, encapsulating poetry, photography, illustration, and more.

Who are they?

Rough Trade Books is a new venture from the independent record label Rough Trade, which can boast a strong cultural legacy of radicalism back to its roots in Ladbroke Grove in 1976. Much in the same way that the label once gave a platform to bands like The Raincoats (whose founding member Ana da Silva is among the first 12 RTB pamphlets), their new venture seeks to give a home to a number of voices and talents whose shared independent spirit ties together the disparate mediums of the artists.

Within the pages of the first 12 pamphlets can be found poetry, short fiction, photography, illustration, and an experimental novella about the occult. It’s certainly an eclectic mix so far, but despite this, each publication is tied to the next by counter-cultural ethic and DIY spirit of each artist and writer. Another obvious common ground is the sensational design and production values of the pamphlets themselves, which evoke something between literary magazines of the 1960s and 70s, and the 7 inch singles from the great era of post-punk labels (and their accompanying graphic designers) in the 1980s.

In short, much like the best record labels, there is a feeling of identity, of a club that you want to be a part of.

What are they publishing, and why are they different?

From Lorena Lohr’s photography of the forgotten corners of Southwest America, to the societal injustice exposed in the work of the poet Salena Godden, the pamphlets so far from Rough Trade Books give a platform to a number of different voices from across a global counter-culture.

There are nods to Rough Trade’s heritage in the photography of urban desolation from Jon Savage, and also to zine culture in the collected interviews of Jenny Pelly & Priests. Different viewpoints of society abound. The variety of voices and forms, along with the brevity of the pamphlets leaves open a great opportunity to publish a wide range of emerging voices. With the next wave 6 of pamphlets just announced (featuring a range of experimental fiction and photography), this is an imprint with a bright future.

What’s up next?

Just released are the aforementioned six new pamphlets, featuring (among others) short stories from James Endeacott, the photography of Japanese love hotel rooms by Laura Lewis, and new fiction from Thomas Morris, whose 2016 Faber collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing won the 2016 Wales Books of the Year, the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award, and a Somerset Maugham Prize.

Upcoming events involve a trip over to Rough Trade Bristol on the 19th September, with readings from Salena Godden, Olly Todd, Joe Dunthorne and Will Burns. Rough Trade Books will then be back in London on Wednesday 3rd at Rough Trade East for a slightly early event for National Poetry Day, in the amusingly titled Not National Poetry Day. This will feature Salena Godden and Will Burns once more, as well as others including the excellent poet Scarlett Sabet, and music from guitarist Adam Chetwood.

And judging from all this, we are presumably safe in the expectation of much more in the not-too-distant future.

For more information, head to Rough Trade Books.

To discover more with The London Magazine, subscribe today from just £17.


Staff Picks – March 2018


Introducing Staff Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the staff at The London Magazine.


Steven O’Brien – Editor
Boneland – Alan Garner

Just finished ‘Boneland’ by Alan Garner. A hard, and yet deeply English read. Is Garner the father of Folk Realism?  



Matthew Scott – Reviews Editor
The Origins of Creativity – Edward O. Wilson

An intriguing attempt to think about artistic creativity by one of the world’s leading biologists. 



Lucy Binnersley – Assistant Editor
Ballet Flamenco Jesús Carmona – Impetus (Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells, 24th February)

Jesús Carmona is famed for his explosive and witty footwork and his ballet-infused moves translated masterfully throughout this irresistible interpretation of famous scores from Spain’s most beloved composers. A truly colourful and explosive perform by all 11 dancers and musicians.


Emma Quick – Marketing and Research Executive
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is a contemporary take on Sophocles’ Antigone, examining the fraught tension that comes with being British, female and Muslim in today’s world. An urgent and pertinent novel which takes on politics, radicalisation, family and faith in a way that is both truly elegant and evocative.



Freya Pratty – Special Editorial Advisor
Another Kind of Life – Photography on the Margins (Barbican Art Gallery, 28th Feb – 27th May, from £9 – U14s go free)

This exhibition spans a huge expanse, both historically and geographically, to tell the stories of the frequently under-represented. Igor Palmin’s photographs are a particular highlight, showing images of hippies in the Russian countryside, as are Paz Errazuriz’s images of sex workers in Chile during the time of Pinochet. 


Bridey Heing – Special Editorial Advisor
How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future – Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

‘I’m currently reading ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It’s as worrying as the title would suggest, but the rich context they provide gives some very reassuring contours to the daily news cycle.’


Alex Bryan – Intern
The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles

Bowles’ novel, turning 70 next year, is a lattice of snapshots which guides you through Post-War North Africa. A great writer and contributor to The London Magazine. 


The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection


“It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs…how they changed the art form forever.”

While he still manages to rock over 100 gigs per year, the Rocket Man is also revered in most cultural circles as a tastemaker par excellence. He has always been an early champion of emerging talent, from Eminem in the 80s to Ed Sheeran in the 90s, and last April, he collaborated with Lady Gaga to launch a clothing line. Now, a major exhibition of international modernist photography at the Tate Modern proves that his private art collecting is as chameleonic as the public curation of his hairstyles and sunglasses.

Drawing from Sir Elton’s private photography collection—with over 8,000 works, it is one of the largest in the world—“The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection” surveys photography’s development in the early twentieth century, calumniating in a love letter to an art form. Beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1950s, the exhibition is the first of its kind to focus on the period of major experimentations that followed the end of the First World War. Charting technological advancements and artistic movements alike, the curator Shoair Mavlian presents formal trials, avante-garde provocations, and pop spectacle that pioneered many of the medium’s movements, from Surrealism to the Bauhaus. Canonical figures such as Man Ray, Irving Penn, and Aexlandr Rodchenko headline the some 200 original prints, all created by the artists themselves. They are displayed in varying arrangements, from gallery-style straight lines, to small and large clusters that reflect the way photographers during this period hung their photographs in order to consider potential edits.

We are privileged to central biographical details behind the collection that shape the trajectory of the exhibition: Sir Elton began collecting photography in 1991, a year after he got sober; the photographs are maintained in the same frames as they are displayed in Sir Elton and David Furnish’s home. However, audiences will be disappointed if they expect any semblance of a tell-all fantasy fandom akin to 2013’s “David Bowie is” at the V&A. An unassuming aesthete, Sir Elton cheerfully demystifies his handiwork behind his possession in the audio guide’s introduction: “It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs, what they were willing to experiment with, and how they changed the art form forever.” Indeed, the exhibition title is not a reference to the art buyer’s prescriptive gaze—it alludes to the camera’s altered way of seeing the world.

One of the great British artistic institutions was skillfully illustrated near the exhibition’s entrance—a complicit queue waited to individually inspect André Kertész’ “Underwater Swimmer” (1917). This tiny contact print, hardly bigger than a bag of tea, is all rippling refracted light and slicing musculature of a seemingly cadaverous swimmer—a beautiful male body, the model was Kertész’ brother. In an interview with the Telegraph, Sir Elton declared it to be the most important photograph from the twentieth century. But if Sir Elton had not provided special audio commentary to accompany this photograph, which is so engulfed by its oversized burnt-gold frame, would the general viewer have even noticed it? The exhibition’s double-rootedness in superstardom branding, and its spectacular survey of a visual art form, one that does not typically draw large museum crowds, anticipates polarised responses. But perhaps, for the groupie-cum-museum-goer, whether or not the exhibition delivers on the implied promise of its title is beside the point—it got you to look in the first place.

By M. René Bradshaw

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection
Tate Modern
10 November 2016 – 7 May 2017


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