In recent times the edges of society have come more into focus, the global economic collapse has brought the stark realities of poverty closer to many than they thought possible, the gap between rich and poor has widened in the UK more aggressively in the past 30 years than any other of its fellow OECD states. In times of prosperity the plight of the poor, the overlooked and socially marginalised remained isolated from view. As salaries are squeezed further in those echelons of society that were once removed from such realities and as the global north continues to see wealth polarised and less integrated into the social fabric of our societies we see the deterioration of the physical architectural spaces that surround us. The margins of our society continue to be neglected as investment is removed, Capitalism relies on growth and as capital contracts or is removed our urbanised environments reflect our diminished circumstances.
As societies are housed increasingly into highly urbanised areas with 50% of the global population housed in urban zones we see the phenomenon of rural depopulation and city growth with capital and wealth absorbed into these growing cities. However, as wealth polarises in society so does its reflection in the physical world become starkly focussed. The edges of our city are where the less wealthy reside and consequently the lack of investment that comes with economic contraction manifests itself at the social and physical edges of our society.
Art and literature are increasingly concerned with such spaces and as the natural world encroaches and reclaims the man made environment artists depict these changing environments to capture the poetic nature of this change of our material environment. The extent to which this change is now evident and increasing is noticeable when institutions such as the Fitzwilliam Museum choose to curate an exhibition entitled and showing artist responses to these ‘Edgelands’.
The combination of the work of artists George Shaw and Michael Landy in the small Shiba exhibition space within the Fitzwilliam Museum is a gentle, unassuming insight into these transitional urban zones of change. Many terms have been coined to explain these spaces, from Will Self’s evocation of ‘Interzones’ and the much used description of these environments as ‘Liminal’.
In the hands of George Shaw’s series of prints entitled ‘The Appointment’ these edges are depicted as empty, greying, melancholic territories. The architecture of these suburban areas in Shaw’s prints of his home The Hill Estate in Coventry remind us that the Ghost Town of the early ‘80’s that Shaw’s fellow Coventrians The Specials informed us of can easily be resurrected by similar economic and political factors some 30 years later. In the twelve prints which detail views Shaw encountered on 12 short walks around his home estate we can imagine the reality of these factors and their physical manifestation in our built environment. We see leafless woodland abutting lifeless mid-century suburban housing and the leaves of bushes encroaching through a fence into a path, the edges of nature hemming us between its reclamation of this edgeland and the adjacent warehouse or garages. A simple image of a wall that depicts a zone that appears neither garden, estate or wilderness becomes the fullest visual expression of ‘edgeland’.
This proximity of nature and its infiltration into our man made environment is a slow but relentless reminder of the fragility of our control over the physical, social spaces that house us. In an image of an alley between two houses the gravure printing technique creates a watery, puddle effect and grey trees imply a rainy scene, a washed out image evoking washed out life. Our minds wander into a voyeuristic melancholy to the emotional life of these spaces; bored kids, adults crushed of vibrancy, the only life inside these identical houses is a humanity only assumed, unseen or barely glimpsed. This implied humanity both architecturally and socially housed on the edges is most strongly evoked by an image of garages, the evidence of life is a violent act of kicked in garage doors.
In a print entitled ‘The Terminus’ we see the end of a bus route. The end of the road is cut at the edge of the frame of the picture, an impression is created that outside the frame the road continues beyond, an impression of going somewhere but perhaps not knowing where or why? a pathway of escape without a true understanding of the journey beyond. Is it the end of the road or a road to nowhere?, the edge of something unknowable.
Michael Landy’s depictions are much more hopeful, also depicting the natural encroaching on the urban, this ‘rus in urbe’ of wild flowers are collected from between the cracks in and between paving slabs and edges of parkland around South East London at locations such as Tower Bridge Road or adjacent to the Millwall football ground. Landy has collected these specimens and fed and watered them to keep them alive to create the hard-ground etchings displayed in the exhibition. The twelve images appear similar to encyclopaedia illustrations of plants and these life size renditions show plants such as Common Toadflax, Creeping Buttercup, Shepherds Purse and Thale Cress. They are simple images, on blank white paper these depictions are isolated from their environment and presented in such a manner minor details take on a real beauty, the delicacy of the root system of a specimen of Herb-Robert and the fineness of hairs on the leaves and flower-heads of Annual Wall-Rocket contrast with our understanding of the dusty and perhaps harsh environment in which they thrive. The display of the images becomes another “edgeland” in itself, the plants appear to be reaching for something in the blankness of the page.
One is left with a feeling that Landy’s specimens are “hanging on despite” and perhaps in such harsh current social and political environments many of us also feel that we too are hanging on in troubled times but within that is the hope that thrives in Landy’s work. Despite the harshness and transience of many of these edge territories that Landy and Shaw’s works evoke, Landy’s weeds tell us of something that remains hopeful for all of us in less certain times or places, those that remain or thrive in such edgelands tell of power and hope in tenacity.