Buoyed by London's history of artistic excellence, four artists draw inspiration from decades of British art while contending with the repercussions of colonialism and xenophobia during a time of massive political upheaval in the country.
Featuring artists John Akomfrah, Phyllida Barlow, Anish Kapoor, and Christian Marclay.
♪soft ambient synth♪
-[Anish] Objects are, I believe, illusory.
They are never what they at first appear to be.
We look at them mostly with love,
hate, desire, revulsion or whatever else it is.
The viewer's involved.
There's always a conversation.
And one of the things I think I've tumbled into in my process
is that kind of uncertainty of what the object is.
Um, is the space of this object in there or is it out here?
It's-- it feels like it's out here somewhere.
Why not see the camera?
Maybe you can't do otherwise here.
Even there, you see, the camera's in it.
Polished objects have been around in art for a very long
But they were all convex.
I've been working with concavity.
And what it has is a focus.
It magnifies and turns everything upside-down.
And at that point there is a sense of vertigo.
And it's that sense of turning the object inside-out that I'm
really taken with.
We think of geometry as knowable.
The interesting thing about geometry,
however, is that when it's taken to the nth degree of knowing,
it becomes unknowable.
Here's another one.
Um, which does a similar thing in a different way.
This is a rectangle with one curved edge.
It's a straight line here and it's a straight line there.
But all the surface in between is curved.
So it's doing all the things I want of an object which is to
Lewis Carroll proposes a world into which you fall.
You know, the rabbit hole or whatever it is.
And that sense of falling is obviously a big part of
As artists, we conduct our educations in public.
You can never know whether it's going to be a success in terms
of what the work is after.
One just has to risk it.
I've watched people walk into a space and go in and go...
Great, that's what I'm after.
That sense of, "How can it be?"
Since "Cloud Gate" was finished I'm told 200 million people have
seen it, which is remarkable.
And 200 million people apparently means 500 million
selfies [laughs] which I love.
When I first made it, I felt that it was too popular,
And in sitting with it I realized that it does something
When you're with it, it's enormous.
But you don't have to step too far away from it and it's not.
It has this sort of shifting scale.
The size of a thing is the size of a thing;
big, small, whatever it is.
A scale of a thing, however, is a strange combination of
meaning, size and emotionality.
It manages to say, "The measure of my body is such in relation
to the object that it does something to my spirit."
Does that lead then to ask oneself about how big one is,
how small one is, how significant one is or all the
Like all good little Indian boys, I was pretty sure that the
only thing to do was to be an engineer of some kind or
something like that.
But, you know, once I made the decision to be an artist when I
was 17, I knew that it was what I had to do.
I came here to go to art school.
Because London is marvelously cosmopolitan,
Come out and I'll try to explain what we're doing
Or what we're thinking about.
I'm in the middle of making a number of forms.
They're all fairly organic and they all have interiors.
And we are wondering about how we can make the process...
I'll start something, whether it's drawing on the wall or
drawing on a piece of paper or whatever it is.
I don't pre-mediate them.
I let it emerge.
And I try and follow the implications of it.
But then, of course, someone has to make them.
So, uh, this was made by Hilary, who's working
And it takes a particular kind of thinking to do accurately.
She and I have, over the years, understood slowly how do you,
um, do the drawing accurately enough so that the object
actually fits together properly and so on?
I grew up in a place called Dehradun in the north of India.
Um, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
So, there was always, at the top end of town,
um, the mountains.
They were this kind of constant mysterious presence.
It's something that's been in my work from the very, very
early pigment works I made, you know, 40 years ago to these void
The proposition here at least is that there's a place or space
through it, beyond it.
It's never just physical.
That there's always something else.
I've worked a lot with dark blues.
This very, very black black which I'm working with at the
And red as blackness.
Red as darkness.
Red as interior.
I think of color as an immersive quality.
That, you know, it's a bit like going into the shower.
You go in the shower, you get wet.
Once you've been in front of a red thing,
you get red.
It's completely with you, around you.
Essentially it's a reflection on an interior.
You know, I'm defined by this.
But actually, close my eyes, I'm not this.
I'm something else completely.
And it has, I believe, to do with red.
Objects represent these psychic propositions.
"Symphony for a Beloved Son" is conveyor belts that have great
lumps of wax on them that slowly go to the top and fall,
making, I hope, an enormous mess.
What I'm after, of course, is that sense of presence,
decay, process-- all the things that are proposed both by
mechanical procedure and by sculpture itself.
Here is a work which is about 20 tons of wax with this big block
that slowly turns.
Nothing much happens.
It's called "My Red Homeland."
Because my homeland is red, both internally and-- [laughs]
You know, one doesn't do psychoanalysis,
uh, for fun.
I mean, I did it for 30-odd years.
And I was, you know, in it because I needed to be.
What I love about it as a process is that it proposes that
the inner world is every bit as, if not much more, significant
than the so-called word of reality.
And the job then is to work with it.
And it's exactly what happens in the studio.
One comes back again and again.
"What is this bloody obsession with red?
Why do I have to do this again and again?"
You know, I can't help it.
It's just there.
Being an artist is a long career.
There's a lot to do and truly opening oneself to oneself is
the hardest work you can possibly do.
-[John] When I was younger, the dream was to go and study art
history and I just wanted to be an art historian.
Not even an artist, just an art historian.
And I don't know where that came from.
I think the first time I came in here,
um, I would have been 14.
And came back every month until I left West London to go to
I started with the gentler ones, the Constables.
And Constable always feels like that for me,
he feels like the beginning, you know,
of one's initiation into painting.
It's a sort of faithful rendition of the English
I get the sort of familiarity with certain features of the
You know, I get all of that.
Turner's my guide, because there, there's an act of will
and imagination which is at the forefront.
It's what I call his "cinematic eye."
It's a painting but it feels like you're in the disaster.
Everything I loved about Turner from the beginning is right
When you're a kid, you're made by paintings because they teach
you to be a human being.
They didn't teach me to be a black person,
but they taught we to be a human being.
Slowly, it dawned on me that it's a sort of temple of
Everywhere you look, you can see it.
And that whiteness is offered to you by the paintings as a sort
of vision of excellence.
It's almost like a psychoanalytic moment of
The very thing that you love may well be also the thing that's
keeping you in a state of discomfort about your place in
And, so, you have to find another way of coming at the
thing you love by embellishing it with other histories and
other stories and other narratives.
I became interested in making multi-screen
films because it seemed a way of bringing disparate
In a project in which you've shot material yourself,
having archival material immediately says "multiplicity"
or "voices at work" rather than a voice.
I'm more choreographer than creator.
I always love this stuff.
-Somehow you can just see, I don't know,
but weirdly you can see that that's 4K.
-Yeah, yeah, yeah, there's like more detail in the lines.
-Yeah, it's just more detail, it's just more light.
-You know, um, I mean, look at that.
Whole range, but you can see what's going on.
-Oh, yeah, go back.
-If you lived, as I did, in London growing up as a person
of color, one of the missions was to understand who you were
and then by implication make sense of that to everybody else.
That this was a feeling I shared with others was really important
for how Black Audio Film Collective came about.
We came together as a group in the same art college on the
south coast of England.
We heard from friends across the country that something was going
on in Handsworth and that we should come and document it.
-[woman] The youths are angry.
The youths-- only the unemployment [inaudible].
That is just in the background.
That just-- everybody feel that.
That's not a major part.
It's the harassment that is going on with the black people
in the area...
-[John] One of the features of the 70s and 80s were a spate of
riots across the country.
The reasons why a young group of black men and women would take
to the street had something to do with the present,
But it is also a kind of accumulation of all sorts of
other events which leads to that point.
-[woman] These are for those to whom history has not been
For those who have known the cruelties of political becoming.
-[John] One of the things you needed to do was to remind
people that the riots were simply stoked by all these other
'Handsworth Songs' was an attempt to try and do that.
We wanted to raise the question of black representation in
By the 90s, we felt like we'd done it.
We continued to be friends and allies even though we don't work
together as a collective anymore.
Literally, a couple of months ago, what defined this square
was permanent camps of people who were pro-Brexit
and people who were very definitely anti-Brexit.
And, of course, it's all gone now.
It feels like a-- feels like a done deal.
It really does.
And depressingly so, actually.
Increasingly, there's a kind of disenchantment with being in
Most of us who are foreign-looking got the
narrative very early on that, apart from anything else,
what Brexit was about was saying,
"We don't want you."
And it made you feel momentarily rootless.
Now that it feels as if it's quote unquote "over,"
part of the accepting it is also not to allow yourself to be
destabilized by it.
The essence of all experiments, be it in politics or aesthetics
or narrative, is that there has to be a way in which the past,
present, and the future can be brought into some sort of whole.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of the sea in
the formation of the African diaspora and black identity.
'Vertigo Sea' was made up of readings from 'Moby Dick,'
accounts of enslaved Africans perish in the sea,
and certainly, the Vietnamese boat crises of the 70s, when
people tried to escape from North Vietnam to come to Europe.
It was important that it felt episodic.
When I installed 'Vertigo Sea' at Tela Contemporary,
we had a Turner.
And the painting we chose was "The Deluge."
And it was absolutely, absolutely perfect for that
show, because it gave 'Vertigo Sea' a kind of godparent.
It felt, to me, important that you had different voices to
represent the ways in which disasters come at sea.
♪soft ominous synths♪
The shift to making 'Purple' was out of the desire to find a way
of fusing autobiography and historical insights together.
If you lived, as I did, in London in the 60s, no one ever
mentioned the fact that living underneath a power station which
pumped a million ton of carbon monoxide into the air may have
an adverse effect on your life.
Battersea Power Station was working at the time of the Cuban
Revolution and continued to work by the time Nkrumah was
overthrown in Ghana in '66.
It was poisoning me during the March on Washington.
You know, all these things were happening at exactly the same
There's no causality between the March on Washington and my
poisoning as a teenager.
But the connective tissues meet.
I lived through this.
I experienced this.
And so by implication, I am this weird product of these disparate
-[man] In the sky, those gasses are partially converted to
sulfuric and nitric acids.
-It's not true that children don't know when seismic
political events take place.
Uh, you felt it palpably.
I remember it very clearly.
Things had changed in Ghana.
I'm of Ghanian heritage.
My mum was a member of the ruling party that took Ghana to
independence in '57.
The military coup in '66 pretty much meant
that we had to leave Ghana,
because coups are a bit like death.
When they come, it wipes out everything.
I was very, very happy to come here.
And for, you know, a good decade, this literally was
paradise for me.
'Four Nocturnes' was my contribution to the Ghana
Pavilion at the Venice Biennial.
The brief was: do something on Ghana freedom.
Global warming is affecting Africans.
Everyone on the continent is suffering.
Whenever you're looking at an image of a young person walking
across a desert, it's also worth considering on screens left and
right that that desert is not history-free.
So many young African migrants were drowned in the thousands
at sea, five, six years ago.
All of those lives are saying, "Come on, man.
You could be one of us.
So if you're not one of us, what are you doing to tell people
about who we are?"
Once you've understood that you are a product of things,
you cant shake off realizing that from across your life.
-Those who wish to die free, rise with me!
Onto New Orleans!
-[John] The artist Dread Scott decided that he would organize
the 1811 Slave Rebellion reenactment as a march
as a way of honoring the event.
I have known Dread for the last 15 years.
Generally, if friends or allies ask me to do something, I would
if I can.
And I got involved because he asked as an act of solidarity.
If it looks like they're gonna go too far that way,
just gently bring it across.
Let's just-- let's roll on this now,
'Cause I can see them in the distance.
It's a huge African diasporic event that could have
conceivably changed the entire history of enslavement across
We will now spend probably the next seven months, [laughs]
Laura and I, trying to find a narrative order to the material
that we shot over the two, three days.
Then, we'll begin to add some more stuff to it.
I'd like it to call on other events to help it make sense in
If you ever see me in the field shooting, there will usually be
my long-time collaborator David Lawson,
my partner Lena, who was also a member of the collective,
and my son Ashdy, who's now working with us.
And between us, we shepherd each project through.
The sense of belonging isn't some abstract idea of
Britishness or Englishness or even of Londonness.
It's to very concrete and specific things.
You make a space in the corner of it that you're comfortable
with with a bunch of your mates and that's your England,
that's your Britain, that's your London.
-[Phyllida] This used to be my daughter's flat.
And it's the first time I've had a studio with a window,
you know, and I love this semi-industrial skyline.
It suits me really perfectly. [laughs]
I have a fascination with abandoned industrial objects.
Out of the back of our house where we look onto a railway
yard, you see these objects that had this very specific use
suddenly becoming moribund.
To me, the idea of re-making those objects is another form of
fossilizing, [laughs] you know.
Especially with a material like plaster and cement.
Sculpture can take on the world we're living in.
It can absorb color and those industrial processes.
A lot of builders use these colors to mark places which
needs repairs or mending.
They're colors of information in the urban environment.
For a lot of people born in the 40s, the shadow the war cast
was very long.
I had extraordinary memories of London as quite a war-damaged
city down in the East End.
The whole idea of damage and repair is an inherent process of
making sculpture for me.
-I've got some blunt scissors here. [laughs]
-The aesthetic of something looking like it's gonna fall
apart is something I quite enjoy in my work.
It's nice to work with another artist who has that kind of
She's absolutely lovely.
-I pay him to say--
-That's exactly what I should say right now.
It's actually really nice working for her.
That's another 10 pounds.
-Can I go home early today?
-[Phyllida] During the 60s, there were three very
significant sculpture shows in London at the Whitechapel
Gallery, challenging sculpture in all sorts of ways.
All the sculptures were painted, fiberglass and resin was used as
The traditional skills of sculpture were being challenged,
questioning that hierarchy that bronze and stone had.
I found earthy materials like plaster and cement really
I started using fiberglass and resin and painting my
Of course, I'd looked at Eva Hesse.
I was completely mesmerized by her work.
That a hanging piece of cloth could actually take on consuming
I was determined to participate in these new approaches to
There's a sort of method in the madness.
This particular group are all about compression.
About things being very closed and tightly contained.
It's not so much about an idea as about an action.
Making the smaller works is the initiation of the larger works.
I know I want the color to be something that's inherent to it
and not just applied at the end.
That's why I'm putting the fabric on the cardboard at this
stage, so the thing is almost like a rock strata or something.
-I think I was more interested in processes of
production, rather than having an idea and then just making it.
I quite like the long, slow process of drawing,
thinking about it, then moving to materials.
Those thoughts in your head start to diminish and the thing
in front of you gains momentum of its own.
I'm always interested in the slippage memory has and painting
is a fantastic way of recording that slippage where things are
A lot of the quick work has a lot to do with having so little
time in the studio when the children were young,
So, this is a deal I made with myself that if it was only an
hour or two hours, I had to have done something.
I went when I was 16, as a painter, to art school.
Painting would have these quite strict procedures about them.
There were so many rights and wrongs about techniques,
And it became very obvious to me that paintings use walls.
And to me, walls are very authoritarian.
They decide what the space is.
A stand-alone sculpture is using the space that we could occupy
or something more worthwhile.
Its sort of possibility for being anarchic excites me a lot.
And I think I've found that like a kind of escape from the
whole business of getting something right.
In the way I work now, which is quite big,
my relationship with the sculptures is: where does the
space escape to?
What is the ambition of the space and the way that it
And what happens if that space is explored to the maximum?
-Yes, they're all upside-down. [laughs]
Ugh, that's annoying.
I think I must have just shoved them in there.
This is more looking at where sculpture ends up and what
happens if it ends up in places where it's not meant to be.
At a time when I wasn't having exhibitions, saying,
"Well, this is good enough for me putting my sculpture in this
hallway for four hours before people want it back again" shows
me that there's a great kind of gaping hole about what and where
sculpture is meant to be, and I think I have sort of always been
interested in the object that seems badly behaved.
This was an object for an ironing board.
It's a bit of that kind of nostalgic thing.
Oh, the work has got worse [laughs] over the years.
It hasn't got better.
Shall we begin the second coat then?
How should we do it?
Randomly pick a color that isn't a red, yeah.
-[Phyllida] Working with a bunch of younger artists is very
important for me.
-I've just got stuck on the [inaudible] colors.
-[Phyllida] I feel hugely responsible and a sort of
anxiety that the deal is beneficial to them.
They're part-time and they're self-employed.
I work closely with my studio manager,
Adam, and we're always thinking, "What can we offer them?
Like, a three-month block guaranteeable."
I think being a mother makes one quite sensitive to what people
are going through.
-Yeah, that's fine.
It's pretty scruffy.
Yeah, that's great.
At the moment, there are quite a lot of assistants because we're
very behind on finishing the work for an exhibition.
The way I inform them of certain aesthetic qualities that I want
is keeping their actions to something that is more
functional than artistic.
Like a cleaning gesture with a brush that happens to be loaded
It's about information and expedience.
Some of the best times I've had was just taking the work to
places so I could have a different relationship with it
from it being produced in the studio.
I noticed that I was looking up a lot at the trees,
and I thought of something that had a sense of industry about
it, where the looking up would be looking through a frame at
the trees and the skies, and that's where the steel frame
structure at the top of the columns came into existence.
And then to have something that was possibly left behind in a
state of entropy, which was these worn out steps.
It's you and the work and the place.
It's a very particular relationship, where there's
nothing else coming between you and that intention.
Going it alone is a very powerful experience.
I'd love to do a piece that could perhaps go very near the
sea or in some incredibly remote landscape where the audience
isn't a factor of the work.
It's more about the "tree that falls in the forest, but if you
haven't seen it, did it actually happen" kind of question.
-Testing, one, two, one, two.
Can you hear me?
But it-- it feels like it really bounces around,
so I hope you're happy with this sound.
I was experimenting with records,
melting them in my kitchen in the stove.
And uh, the fumes, I think, got to me.
That night, I went to sleep and I had this dream that I ate a
record because I felt so nauseated.
I thought, "Well, maybe I could make a little video."
I enjoyed music as a physical experience.
I used to love going to clubs and hearing music very loud that
just would, you know, take over your body.
Now, I regret it because I'm like half-deaf.
But, um, I think there was something fascinating about
sound being objectified.
My influences for DJing really came more from Musique Concrete
or John Cage.
So I was always interested in the conceptual side of things.
In the 80s, I started a band called The Bachelors Even.
It was a duo and my collaborator was a guitar player, Kurt Henry.
That's when I started using records.
I would record these skipping records and use cassettes
onstage as these background rhythmic loops.
We had a lot of destructive actions,
actually, breaking things for the sound,
uh, that it would make.
A very liberating moment was punk rock.
You know, here were people performing without any training.
The combination of punk rock and performance art really allowed
me to get involved in music.
Everybody I was hanging out with were either dancers,
musicians, painters, sculptors, performance artists in the East
Village, just being creative and collaborating very often.
I came to London with my wife.
We needed a change from New York.
Over the years, I've done many different things.
When I was a kid, I would always be collaging.
I'm still the same person, cutting and pasting.
My work is quite eclectic.
If I'm doing something new, I'm excited,
and I might work with a printer one day or with film fragments
that I collage or graphic scores.
I think it's important to make discovery through the knowledge
of other people.
That's what I've enjoyed about music all my life is it is a
So the thread of my work maybe is sound.
But sound is such a wide subject, so it allows me to work
in many different media.
Video, because it includes sound and image,
is a good medium for me.
Now, it's, of course, very easy.
You can film a video on your iPhone and edit it on the phone
and just send it around.
-[Christian] The Snapchat project came about as a
For me, it was a chance to work with contemporary technology.
-I'm like really a low-tech person.
I'm not-- not very good with computers.
Because I don't use social media,
I didn't know what Snapchat was.
So, I did a little research and realized that three-and-a-half
billion Snaps are created every day and that just blew my mind.
I wanted to shift the focus so it wouldn't be on the image
but on the sound.
-[Christian] The Snapchat engineers were amazing.
They developed these algorithms allowing me to find what I was
-I think so, yeah.
-[Christian] I ended up making five different sound
installations, most of them interactive, from Snapchats that
were publicly posted.
The one that I spent the most time working on was called
As I would maybe make some 10 turntables,
here, I had 10 iPhone and I created a four-minute mix of
For me, what was interesting is that this is a new form of
People are creating their own language using image and sound,
which for me, of course, is interesting because it is about
And I've always been very interested in images,
even though sound is so important to my work.
Over the years, I've collaborated with many musicians
and always felt intimidated by their incredible knowledge and
years of practice.
But they were very encouraging in the sense that they thought
that my way of doing things was interesting.
I can't read or write music traditionally,
uh, so I had to invent my own ways.
The more recent performance I've done is called "Investigations."
It's a series of found photographs which were cropped,
and they show the hands of different pianists.
I wanted to provide this to people who can read music.
The posture on the image has to be emulated.
So it's this overlap of different actions.
I like to use the potential of images to create music.
I love onomatopoeias because they're words, but at the same
time, they're image.
You can't really separate the word from the image.
It's a very expressive way to draw a word.
A graphic score is really an open musical score.
My graphic scores can be fragments from comic books or
I like the idea that an image can suggest sound rather than a
note on a staff line
The choice of the performer is really important.
It's almost like selecting an instrument.
In order to work on that Manga scroll,
I bought a lot of Manga translated into English and I
cut them up.
-[Christian] I think it's okay, yeah.
-I mean, I can put more if you'd like it more transparent.
But I think you can see it anyway.
-No, I think it's gonna work.
-All right, cool.
-I never thought I would get interested in prints,
uh, and I've worked in different studios now.
I used to work at a graphic studio in Tampa.
And then, when I moved to London, the commute was a bit
I became aware of Manga comic books traveling in Japan and
seeing everybody in the subway reading this stuff.
You know, it's such a popular thing.
The woodgrain has an expressionist quality.
I thought this would be appropriate because the collage
is made out of fragments and is cut out and glued.
They're reminiscent of Edvard Munch's "Scream," which has
these concentric lines that feel like the sound is really coming
out of the mouth.
The exhibition at Poly Cooper was very much about this anxiety
mood that we're living in right now politically.
If you overlap 48 war movies on top of each other, you end up
with a cacophony and you can't quite follow the narrative.
It's not a pleasant video.
The sound becomes quite aggressive.
It's just a loop and it goes on forever.
And this tunnel vision, for me, the video, is just a different
way to express the kind of frustration that we're all
experiencing right now.
I want to comment on the everyday life that we're all
living and the things that surround us.
When I first came to London, every day was a visual feast
just because I was looking at things differently.
On my walk from the studio to home, I take a lot of pictures,
though I don't know these days if my camera is better than my
Recently, I've made animations with some of these photographs
of trash that I would find on the street.
We showed the one with chewing gum in Times Square.
For me, it's just a form of note-taking.
It was nice to bring back to the street what I had found on
sidewalks in London.
I wanna just be a dilettante for the rest of my life.
Just be able to change.
The street can be a place of creativity and the street can be
the studio as well.
The power of visual culture and of sound works on us in a very
But it's there.
You never know when some idea's gonna hit you.
It can happen anywhere.