This blog shares my experiences and reflections during my time as Artist in Residence at Tower Bridge.  As I undertake this exciting residency opportunity, I hope to use this blog to explore, share and reflect on the process of making art within and in response to this unique architectural icon, historic landmark, visitor attraction and functional bascule crossing in the city of London.

In my last post I wrote of the selection process, initial responses and beginning of the residency covering some of the emotional and operational aspects of inhabiting Tower Bridge.  It was cathartic to share the early weeks of my residency and put things into perspective.  In the intervening time for approximately 6 weeks, I’ve been working roughly two days a week on developing the residency scheme and creating the public programme of events, education and community outreach aspects alongside the education team. I’ve also been reading a healthy amount of books on related and interdisciplinary subjects, ranging from architecture to modernity, from alchemy to the sublime.  In this blog entry ‘staring down the Beast’ I hope to share some aspects of the art making process which have started to emerge in response to this initial engagement.

In the early days of my residency there emerged a distinct and newfound appreciation of looking. The simple act of standing near the Bridge and looking for varied lengths of time became an important and exciting ritual in which I could process all the visual information of this complex and unusual structure.  I found myself interacting with the Bridge over a series of distinct walks, encounters, approaches, crossings and visitations and through this newfound attention to detail, place and scale I developed a visual appreciation of the Bridge and it’s surroundings. I quickly realised that looking from the vantage of the residential coves of Bermondsey provided me with a relaxed and comfortable solitude where I could stop and ponder the many faces and facets of this showpiece of structural engineering.  From afar the Bridge glides over the surface of the Thames, at night lit with a ceremonial pomp and by day disappearing amid the haze, fog and smog of London.  From afar it both loses and gains a sense of scale, feeling knowable and understandable with all the component elements working together: the two towers, walkways, shore spans and abutments present the touristic view of a coherent and unified architectural form.  These precious moments early on in my process were vital for the development of the thinking that was to sustain me over the coming months of the residency.

I have been walking more and more over the last three years, using the time and space that it affords as vital planning and reflection time, yet now the act of stopping still and looking long-form emerged alongside as an important part of this process.  Not long after this I began to write, often aided by talking aloud the connected and conflicting thoughts and possibilities of the residency.  My writing took the form of notes, poetry, lists, questions.  Fragments became sentences and soon reams of connected texts and ideas began to form, yet curiously for a number of weeks it was only words. No drawings at all, not even a single sketch.

The task of capturing something so monumental and fixed became a beastly proposition and I felt a tangible reluctance to commit to the shapes of the structure and attempt to capture the awkward and shifting sense of scales.  I felt a reticence to produce something which depicted the Bridge, fearing the possibility of ‘getting it wrong’.  In my practice it is rare for me to draw something which accords to a traditional sense of realism, perspective or composition – the architectures that I draw are more often created to illustrate an understanding which relates to the behaviour of matter, a principle of mathematics or social theory rather than an accurate rendering of what is undeniably or recognisably a single landmark such as Tower Bridge.  Drawing the Bridge felt like it was a commitment to a perspective, both literal and metaphorical.  What did it mean for me to draw? How would drawing describe the space in a way which language couldn’t? My trusted impulse to draw was faltering and suddenly I was an Artist in Residence who appeared scared to make art.

During this time I also started to research deeper into the multiple readings and associations relating to the concept of the Sublime – an evolving understanding of nature, beauty and technology in which responses of awe, terror and pleasure are intermingled to create an often overwhelming sensory response to environments and event.  My ongoing reading explores the literary understandings of the term through Longinus, Burke and Kant.

The Sublime has since become an underpinning and encompassing concept which relates to many aspects of my residency, appearing as a shadow across my research, sometimes obscuring yet often facilitating exciting connections and passages between disparate areas of my thinking.  Applied across a number of different areas and through a variety of interpretations (not all of which I can explain within this post but the overall task of my residency appears to be an attempt) The Sublime began to relate to my lived experience of terror in the face of the monumental building in front of me, of the monumentality of that building, yet also to the monumentality that I felt about the task of capturing this building.  The Bridge became more like a mountain to climb than a bridge to traverse or project to complete.  It’s beastly qualities revealed themselves as I approached it each time on a walk – it started to loom over my thoughts – I began to feel that if I were staring at the Beast, then it was absolutely staring back at me.

I refer to the Bridge’s beastliness as a concept related to the residency brief I am responding to: ‘Beauty or Beast: Tower Bridge is a living showpiece of Victorian Art and Architecture’.  This key part of the Bridge’s new interpretation strategy introduces the oppositions within the Beauty and Beast narrative as introduced by Villeneuve’s fairy tale of the 1740’s.  In it, a kind and loving Prince is cursed to live within the confines of a beastly body and only through his interactions with a young Beauty can he be redeemed. The Beast’s hidden inner beauty must be seen in order for him to be saved. The Bridge then if read as the Beast gains a rich inner life of hidden Beauty and becomes a space of duality and opposition – a meeting point for complex discussion regarding late 19th Century aesthetics and their relationship to the early modern age.  It seems almost impossible to interrogate concepts of late Victorian and Neo-Gothic art and architecture without an understanding of the Sublime and the contested, multi faceted interpretations of the term. The beastliness of the Bridge exposes a terror within the experience of a Sublime encounter: a sensation of overwhelming awe in relation to the magnificence of a spatial construction, but also further in the individual’s conceptual experience of their own awe in relation to the object.  The activities of looking, walking and writing became my methods of assimilating the Beast, through my proximity, vision, imagination and body.  The early period of the residency then became my chance to navigate my way through my own awe and fear, my own sense of the Sublime.

What emerged was a sensory response to drawing, a series of works which capture these moments of stricken awe.  Over a series of outdoor drawing encounters throughout a changeable couple of months I have been responding to the exterior of the Bridge intensely, savouring the complex ornamental silhouette of the space whilst attempting to abandon the notion that I must capture it correctly.  There has emerged a mutation of drawing, a private game which encourages my unfolding sense of connection and assimilation to be manifest.  I have been drawing in an unbroken line without taking my pen off the page, looking only at the Bridge and not at all at the surface of the paper.  The method, called contour drawing (or more specifically blind contour or continuous line drawing) allowed me to start the process of representing, creating anew and establishing a vision of the Bridge outside of the limits of the correct, the comparable or the postcard.  Drawing the Bridge from outside has allowed me to listen to the stories and voices of the people who move around it every day.  At night the dramatic light and shade enhance the shape and tonality of the space to create an epic, altered sense of scale and chiaroscuro.  The Bridge performs a towering display for a vast number of people stretched in every direction of the Thames.  Sometimes when drawing I have imagined that if I were to look away even just for a split second, it might move or have nudged its way closer like a perverse playground game. The Bridge is a hungry wolf hiding in Portland Stone and for now seems compliant enough if I capture it from the correct angles.

Through my developed confidence to capture the Bridge an interesting style of drawing has emerged: incomplete, dissolved, fractured, reassembled.  Recognisable shapes and lines allow the Bridge to remain identifiable in parts, serving to destabilise the building, conjuring images which violate the solidity of the Beast and the delicacy of its Beauty.  The drawings move in a way my vision has moved, providing a direct relation between my haptic and optic senses. There appears in some works dense moments of overlaid architectural detail, scribbles of intense seeing or at other points broad sweeps which represent complex structural technologies reduced to a simple line.  The Bridge has become a place which is alive, which breathes according to the pattern of my looking and the growing confidence of my hand. As I have drawn more so I have gained the confidence to come closer and start to depict the gothic details of the finials atop the towers, the mullioned windows and weathered, indistinct gargoyles gurning over the roadside.  There is an inherent rejection of structural truth as rendered through drawing and a disconcerting betrayal of the Gothic Revivalist architectural detail within these works, yet for me they are starting to capture some of the uniqueness of this structure

I have enjoyed playing with the construction and deconstruction of the works to varying degrees, playing with seeing both the structure and the representation of the structure to varying effect.  I can see now that the moments that describe the Bridge more successfully, no matter the seeming abstraction, are when my connection and focussed attention are positioned alongside an embrace of the indeterminate.  The drawings are starting to embody the Sublime nature of the Bridge, sometimes appearing to resemble natural forms rather than an architectural structure.  The Bridge sometimes appears as a mountain in it’s solidity or disappears like a vast cumulus cloud subject to the changes of atmospheric conditions around it.

Since this initial moment in the residency I have been using the contour drawings as stimulus for a series of photographic works, animation and sculptural forms through my extrusions using a 3D pen.  They have become central to residency through their embrace of the indistinct and indeterminate and are one of the many ways in which I am engaging with schools and communities around the Bridge in the engagement programme too.  The simple act of looking yielded a wonderful opportunity for me to develop my drawing practice and embrace new ways of seeing and representing space through drawing.