Xanadu, Stratford City
'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree...'
S.T Coleridge 1797
Samuel Taylor Coleridge had composed over 200 lines of verse in his mind during an opium-induced dream. He had risen from bed and was fast-scribbling the lines down when, famously, he was interrupted by ‘a man from Porlock’ who wished to talk business. Upon returning to his desk, to complete the poem (he’d only got 40 lines down when the debt collector arrived - I’m assuming the man from Porlock’s business was debt-collection, Coleridge being a poet), he discovered that his climactic verses had evaporated into the ether along with the opium fumes.
I’d speculate that the ‘lost lines’ of Xanadu (a cautionary tale against the vanity of constructing an artificial Eden bounded by walls and domes), might have served as an early blueprint for Westfield Stratford. A crazed, hyper-intense environment, Westfield is constantly abuzz with strange ‘happenings’ and hive activity. A guy sells coffee out of a sawn-in-half Cadillac, people are enticed with a free ice-cream to watch an advert in a fake cinema, deck chairs are available from which to view rolling news; nothing seems too bizarre (or hellish) to contemplate.
I have a theory as to the pitch of public-mania whipped up at Westfield. Apparently the pavement tiles all around are fabricated from something called PaveGen; these absorb the ‘kinetic energy’ from the shoppers’ footsteps, converting it into electricity to power the vast, flashing advert screens all about. My (conspiracy) theory is that PaveGen also scrambles the brain so that shoppers more eagerly grab at anything and everything they come into contact with, melting credit cards a-flourished.
And yes, excitingly for my research purposes there are regular public demonstrations of ‘how to’: cook noodles, make bead jewellery, bake bread, massage shoulders, and much else.
In the midst of this contemporary Xanadu, (Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ also suggests a prophetic image), is Shape Gallery where I am currently working with the production team to build the furniture and designs for the eventual staging of my Unlimited commission Demonstrating the World. There’s something nicely circuitous about this since the initial idea for this project was particularly aimed for realisation against such densely-populated public settings as Westfield Stratford.
Public performance has been the main trope of my work over the years, the thing I like doing best. It’s an unpredictable, feral scenario and I have placed myself at the centre of all sorts of hysteria down the years, from closing down Tate Liverpool with barrier tape (sans permission), to being booted and prodded by a group of learning disabled children whilst lying flat in the centre of a medieval market place in Den Bosch, Netherlands, (home fittingly enough, to the aforementioned Heironymous Bosch himself).
Our ‘exhibition’ - ‘Making Demonstrating the World’ - in Shape Gallery is what artists call ‘process-based’ since we are using the space, basically, as a workshop to manufacture the intricately designed and wonderfully absurd furniture that has arisen out of the collaboration between myself and the architect Ida Martin. (Hopefully, I will one day be ‘demonstrating’ these pieces of furniture/sculpture from the back of a roadshow trailer at a shopping-Eden near you).
So the Gallery is constantly in a state of transformation as we add design images to the walls, along with explanatory texts and descriptions of the project; there’s a video of me performing a demonstration piece at Live Art Denmark festival last year, and a large blown-up photograph of the image made with Manuel Vason at Westfield’s hag-horror sister, Lakeside in Essex (see blog 3 in this series).
The passing public appear somewhat bemused as they peer through the glass frontage of the Gallery at the tools and wood pieces scattered about, unsure as to whether or not they are allowed to enter. Those who do are offered goggles and ear mufflers (a health and safety requirement apparently), and mosey about sporting increasingly puzzled expressions. A fairly regular expression of interest goes: ‘and so when will the exhibition be ready?’ to which our intrepid invigilation team, Andrew Cochrane and Kate Mahony, reply politely: ‘this IS the exhibition’.
The furniture is starting to look great though, and one unexpected development is that we have already received two expressions of interest in purchasing pieces, the ‘Selfie Chair’ being a particular item of desire. Unexpected, because Edd Hobbs the producer of the project and myself have never considered any of the stuff we are throwing together, as yet, to be ‘for sale’. It would be a matter of dark irony if, by the alimentary logic of Coleridge’s opium-dream poem I was to arrive at a second career as a furniture salesman.
Posted by Aaron Williamson, 28 August 2015
Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 1 September 2015