Today's tour was of the stalwart North London neighbourhood Wood Green in the affable company of Hugh Chapman. I say stalwart because Wood Green is one of those areas that has the character of always being there but never being too obtrusive, like the waiters in the excellent Kervan Sofrasi Turkish Restaurant on the High Road. This is in complete contrast to attention seeking Dalston, for example. This can mean that the place gets taken for granted, which is a pity because changes, such as the imminent demolition of the gas holder, can just happen like weather: it lurches from grey to grey.
Our tour of Wood Green was not a rehearsed walk with a set script, but Hugh did have several locations in mind to take me to. That is what brought us to the Chocolate Factory, a former industrial building now housing creative businesses. It still bore traces of its history of sweetening the tooth of the British Empire but today it housed such things as overspill from Mountview Theatre Academy. As we were walking around this oversized shoebox and later waking beside some of the other refashioned industrial units in the area, I had a sense of familiarity that I now realise came from the old Middlesex University Fine Art School being based here on Western Road back in the 90s. I first visited it as an undergraduate student and then later as a judgemental life model; a cash-strapped 22-year-old performance artist who looked down on life drawing but had to keep his opinions to himself and humbly take the money. The school has long since moved elsewhere, the building changed its appearance and my attitudes to drawing softened.
Back out into the cool grey we ascended the multi-story car park in search of a view and this is the best we got. Whilst Wood Green's centre has some density, it is surrounded by rows of two-storey houses with cars parked out the front and little back gardens filled with patches of grass, bikes and children's plastic toys.
For an area whose name evokes a Robin Hood-like image of a clearing deep in the forest, the reality is resolutely urban with no wood to see and scarce little green either. The slither of greenery that we did come to was the New River, reached by walking under the train tracks, which neatly slice the urban fabric in two. To the south we arrived at Turnpike Lane Station where the slender Ducketts Common stretched before us but which marked the limit of our walk: we turned around and headed back up High Road. That park is another old haunt of mine: many moons ago I directed A Goat to Grind a performance for six cyclists that briefly interrupted the assembled Special Brew drinkers. Whilst I have been away too long, they looked as if they were still there, still putting the world to rights and peeing in the bushes. It is reassuring that some things don't change.
One of the purposes of the tour was to test out an idea of mine to explore an urban environment via the reproductions of art that can be found in it. This picture on the left, sitting in a charity shop, is an example. I wanted to first identify its origin and with this see if there was a way to connect this Rembrandt (right) to its contemporary environment. The first thing that I noticed doing this was how unevenly art is distributed: there are vast swathes of the city that art barely touches. What you do see everywhere, however, are the byproducts of art, namely design. Looking for both art and the traces of it through the etymology of images, proved to be a quite fascinating exercise that offered an original method of viewing the city. How the art reflects back upon the city remains to be seen but it can be so rich in content - Balthazar's Feast, Rembrandt's life and the painting's history - that these will, without the shadow of a doubt, include stories that could be reactivated in Wood Green.
Hugh is working for the social enterprise Green Rooms, a hotel catering for the arts sector which has its own arts programme. Naturally, they have an affinity with independent local businesses such as the Big Green Bookshop, a sympathetic place tucked away off the main street. Here we met the people running the place who were happy to chat and willing to be involved in some sort of artistic tour too. This is quite a contrast to another one of our stops, the frozen food store Iceland, where a security guard asked us to stop taking photographs, afraid we might be stealing their stellar design concepts. This division between local stores and national chains was predictable but is worth bearing in mind when making a tour. The temptation is to make tours on a personable and local level, bypassing the brightly lit mall, but that would give a very false impression of the neighbourhood. Somehow, it seems to me the resistance or impersonality that you can encounter in the larger places is interesting in itself and a tone not to be avoided altogether.
All the time that we were looking around the neighbourhood as a form of artistic research, there was also a secondary very practical task of looking for a suitcase going on. This took us up and down High Road in and out of large and small stores alike. I did finally find a decent case in a sale in one of the smaller places and it was put to use immediately as I checked out of Green Rooms. I expect to see more of the area and, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I will be back. Touch wood (Green).
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