Gilt in the City on a winter afternoon


London, a freezing weekday afternoon walking from Spitalfields. We’re looking for churches, and a synagogue, which we picked from a handbook. Whitechapel Gallery beckons on the way and we go for a look. I’ve no idea what’s on, but it turns out the theme is Urban Nature, which is fairly apt. Only 24 hours in London but fate assumes we’re missing trees and moorland already.

Image 01

Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Giuseppe Penone has found a tree, cast it in bronze, gilded the interior and cut it into pieces so we can gaze through the hollow trunk that once rose up and away and into the sky. It’s called Space of Light, or more fluidly, Spazio di Luce.

I’m not thinking of trees, but concrete cylinders, because a few days ago I saw a road trip movie where the characters stowed away inside one on the way to Spain. But then today I’m the country mouse and so perhaps the impact is working in reverse. Are Londoners sensing the forest?

It’s great to be in the city after a stretch in the tiniest villages: I need the antidote, keen to fill the mental landscape with tube trains, cranes and artificial light. It’s a bit like Lucozade, which as a child I would have drunk regularly except it was only allowed when you had a cold.


Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Rise trees of the wood, of the forest… rise trees of the orchards, of the avenues, of the gardens, of the parks, rise from the wood that you have formed, take us back to the memory of your lives, tell us about the events, the seasons, the contacts of your existence. Take us back to the woodland, the darkness, the shadow, the scent of the undergrowth, the wonder of the cathedral that is born in the wood land.

Text by Giuseppe Penone writing in 1979, cut and pasted from Wikipedia

There’s a display about Rovesciare I propri occhi (To reverse one’s eyes) which involved the artist wearing mirrored contact lenses and exploring the countryside by touch. His quote alongside connects trees reaching for light with the retina capturing images with light. It suggests we share flesh and fibre with trees, our gaze questing like tree limbs and branches for the sun.

It’s reminding me of the rental DVD that hung around for weeks because the unappetising description was ‘astronomers search the skies for stars while a group of women search for body parts in the desert nearby’. Nostalgia for the Light was actually beautiful and meditative and mind-expanding: astronomers experiencing stars as history – via light years – are linked with a harrowing archaeology of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, to explore the past and what really constitutes our now and future.

I’m not sure if there’s any genuine connection, but all these ways of thinking about light feel like pieces of a jigsaw which would probably be worth the effort… that our history is carried in the light is a fantastically poetic concept.

The sky outside is pewter grey and glacially cold. Looking up I see a crow – all very Gormenghast – and the building is gilded with leaves (by Rachel Whiteread). It’s a hyperreal, gothic moment, compounded seconds later by a White Hart nestling in the greenwood of a pub sign alongside the sunset glow of Burger King signage.

Whitechapel Gallery (529x800)

The synagogue is closed, as are a couple of churches. The past is close at hand, glimpsed through rails, definitely asleep. Construction is everywhere: plate glass moves vertically at a stately pace and the new structures expose their vital organs, sometimes messily.

Arrows to where (1024x552)

The trees opposite one church are gruesome – stunted and blackened, purest 21st century gothic (above). But in the gleaming hermetically-sealed paneling there are secret latches…

Grace (627x1024)

So sudden, it’s a hallucination. I’m reminded of a series called The Georgian House from the 1970s, in which a servant boy was transported from 18th century Bristol to the future, only to rush out in shock and headlong into the traffic.

Grace 2 (719x1024)

We’re forced to look upwards and pointed to a gilded heaven. But this is not an instruction from the past: it is everywhere, in the pneumatic drilling on the air and the visions through the window.

Hemmed in 4 (603x1024)

Like the gilded tree, this poor creature is felled and hemmed in too…

Hemmed in 2 (662x1024)

And in case we might linger too long, a glance up at the wall urges us to make much of time…

No hanging around then... (678x592)

With all the relentless development outside, you could feel pity for poor besieged churches. Hemmed in like this precious table…

Hemmed in (800x456)

Be at rest: the table is preserved. No-one has put anything on it or under it – like these caskets of history, these places of worship we’re standing in. The power of God can resist building directly on even if it can’t manage the doorstep outside.

But for a moment I see little difference between inside and out, past and present. Perhaps this isn’t a benign oasis. It’s all power and awe. Look up, look up. These ancient buildings are not besieged – they are bulwarks of power, just like the monoliths in the financial heart of the City of London. They’ve both met head on and neither will budge.

Meanwhile, someone else who wouldn’t budge looks on…

Cult (615x1024)

Charles I was my favourite King. Here he’s restored, airbrushed, gilded, and the focus for another slightly odd cult. What with Richard III, there seem to be opportunities these days in marketing maligned monarchs as celebrities.

Back home I read that Rachel Whiteread’s decoration of Whitechapel Gallery is echoing “London’s rooftop repertoire of gilded angels, heraldic animals and crests”. Looking back on the photos, there’s gilding in most of them. A country mouse might think London’s really paved with gold.


3 thoughts on “Gilt in the City on a winter afternoon

  1. A beautiful, spun-with-gold piece of writing! Thank you for an absorbing and deeply thoughtful journey through so many fascinating and interwoven strands of mindfulness and experience. Wonderful to follow your footsteps through the city – transposed with all those echoes of forest and light and time, and infused with the interplay of what you carry with you and exchange and absorb as you move through place and moment.

    I loved being carried along by this intriguing enchantment of images, words, art, architecture, contrasts, fusions and concepts to contemplate! Love the ideas that ‘we share flesh and fibre with trees, our gaze questing like tree limbs and branches for the sun’ and that ‘our history is carried in the light.’ Beautiful, poetic thought indeed! Made me think of Peter Ackroyd’s book ‘First Light’ (all astronomy and ancient stone circles and eons of light and connections of mind and thought across Time) which I read years ago now… (also maybe Ackroyd came to mind because of his writing about Spitalfields churches/ Hawksmoor etc). A branch of my ancestors have Spitalfields connections going back to the 16th century when they settled there as refugees (they were French Huguenot silk weavers). Many were baptised and married in the fascinating old churches in the area. I’d love to visit there and have a proper explore, treading in their footsteps someday…

    Thank you for this magical virtual tour… Great to be back in Whistles in the Wind territory again!

    • It’s really great that you like this one, wasn’t sure it really said anything. Like saying about idea fledglings, so much idle thought gets lost and it’s these associations that build up atmosphere and sense of place I think. So often there’s a sense (like feeling bound to look for ‘goals’) that looking at an exhibition (or film or book even) has to produce a really immersive, tidy experience, but just letting it float by and resonate where it will, however random, ends up being more rewarding to the viewer’s imagination… I like your comment ‘mindfulness’ too. Not being very articulate, but think I’m saying that so often we can be put in the position by our culture/media of being instructed in our responses, to consume along set lines. Not just at exhibitions etc, but in visiting anywhere, a city or a wood or a moor. It’s good to wander more, on foot or in mind. Perhaps we don’t always trust ourselves to let the day to day unfold without a blueprint: a modern malady? One of my windblown paper bag rambles there!

      Will look up the Peter Ackroyd book. And what a fantastic journey of your own round Spitalfields to come one day.

      • It’s kind of a magical process that, sometimes, what we think hasn’t said much at all – (maybe because it is so familiar to our own natural thought processes) – are the very things that reach someone else as the most striking and original and eye opening of all! For me, this post was full of wonderful turns and corners of thought, with the imagination flickering on all sorts of intriguing detail, like a guiding torch held up to pick out perspective. That sense of letting things float, really ends up bringing things to a kind of crucial centre of understanding. I think what you say about idle thought and association is so true. It’s a rich soil, too often smothered by the stuff we think we “should” add to be valid in some way – the cultural signals, directions, acceptances of what is the “right” approach and all the baggage of media, norm, expectation or training.

        Wandering is so important, I think. And your words here are so timely too – as wandering has been crucial lately in order to get going somewhere again. I’ve finally managed to keep all those fledgling ideas in enough order to push one out of the nest – and, ironically, only found that sense of where to go by randomly chasing my own ‘windblown paper bag’ (love that description!) of thoughts and associations. All part of letting things be, and getting to what is, without too much prescription muddling the process…

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