Alun Jones, ‘Sweet wrappers blowing over the street’, in: Architecture Foundation exhibition catalogue (London, UK: February 2001)
Sweet wrappers blowing all over the street
Alun Jones and Richard Wenrtworth in conversation
AJ This exhibition is called ‘encounters between here and there’, which reflects the act of going to where a project will take place and having to respond to the context. What interests me about your work is that it takes our culture as its context and re-presents it to us in a way that reveals deeper issues of our cultural situation. It is as though you are able to see the wood and the trees, where most people see both or neither.
RW I’ve just done a project in Kent which was similar in a way to Walsall, but ultimately very different in what it produced [the design of the Public Square at the Walsall Art Gallery was a collaboration between Richard Wentworth and Caruso St. John Architects. Alun Jones was the project architect for both projects]. The process was similar though, in that I was bussed in and bussed out and it made me feel completely neurotic. What I became acutely aware of though, is that in the context of undertaking a project of that nature you can never become an inhabitant irrespective of how well you listen or how well you see. Eventually I came up with the termexhabitant, which I thought ought to be in the language, as it describes the situation so well. We are allexhabitantssome of the time. We may use the word ‘home’, but where are we when we are not there?
Working in the studio and working in context is not at all different. My main interest lies in the fact that the world doesn’t fit and no matter how hard you try to cut the mitre it is always going to say ‘yes I’m a very clever invention but I am not going to do it for you’. A large part of what I tend to see is, I think, very English; and what I see is a sort of malfunction or disfunction, but one that is often resolved very happily or without great stress. But I don’t do this as a spotting activity though, I do not walk down the street deliberately looking for the house with the number on back-to-front, it is just that I happen to see these things. Maybe it is to do with the fact that I was brought up in a very controlled period just after the war when you could sense a kind of military regulation and society seemed to be a lot more ordered. I could never understand why it was like that or even what it gained from being like that. I thought it was like a comedy in a sense. When we walk through the city today we are walking through left overs and the attempts at social and technical regulation superimposed on Victorian structures.
I can plane a piece of wood, but I don’t believe it. I know quite a lot about skills and crafts for instance but I couldn’t begin to do it even though I admire those who do. It is like these William Morris chairs that we are sitting on for example, they are a mixture of hand made and machine made and typically conversing back to the middle ages but shouting forwards to the Bauhaus. I think the whole of our culture is very tormented by that; we are aware that we are very rich, and can achieve an amazing amount, but at the same time we manage to fuck it up a lot. It is like the railways at the moment which are suffering from this short-termism which stems from a break down in our disposition towards each other. It is like being on the train, nobody talks to anybody until the train stops in the middle of nowhere and the heating goes off. Up until that moment you feel antagonistic towards the other people even though you are part of the problem. This is all part of the very complex English social transaction that forms the context that I work with.
At Christmas I was thinking about the coal fire in our house and how difficult it is to keep going for any sustained period; but also that it embodies our whole social structure. How did coal get here, where does it come from, how was it moved, who was paid what, and at what stage? Similarly, the physical consequences of moving it through a building mean you become very aware of yourself as a beast of burden, which is now a very unusual experience. As you burn the coal, quite apart from the environmental implications, it creates a lot of dust that is totally incompatible with our culture, which is one of being ‘dust-free’. It makes you realise why they were called dust-bins and dust-men. Now, all of that side of life is dealt with by infrastructures that remove it from our lives.
It is like the impact that moving the news-presses from the Farringdon and Fleet Street area to the docks has had on that part of London. This was a very vivid experience, being held up on your journey as enormous rolls of paper were manoeuvered around the streets of central London.
So there is something about how we know and cherish materiality that I am very conscious of and I think about all of the time. This is what I want to argue with in my work. If I am using a piece of laminate for example I will nail it to the background to contradict the correct method. In the studio there is a constant rehearsal of these issues.
When people ask me what I do I say I am a putter-togtherer and a taker-aparter.
I think all of these things came together in Walsall. There was a sense that the world had rained on Walsall for 500 years; the canals arrived and failed and had gone, buildings arrived and failed and had gone. Places of public entertainment or shared experience arrived and failed and had gone. Although a lot of that was not legible you could feel it. If there had been a Roman temple on the site you would have wanted to know because it is interesting to know what is vested in that dirt. Walsall for me was an opportunity to collide perceptions of craft and things which I think are within our nobility and the nobility of our actions, but are played down, such as laying a beautiful piece of asphalt or a fine concrete wall.
The thing that came to interest me a lot was the idea that the canal basin was like a spirit level, and that it could quite easily be measuring a topographical situation that ended in a lock ten miles away. The important thing was that we were talking about topography [The New Art Gallery, Walsall sits adjacent to an existing canal basin that now forms a central part of the work which reaches out into the town in all directions; Richard Wentworth particularly enjoys the oxymoron of naming it Gallery Square]. The way the gallery sat in the space and took its level from the canal basin meant that there was actually quite a lot for the form of the landscape to do, more than most people had initially anticipated I suspect. What was created was like a terrace in an Italianate garden, but where there is nothing to overlook or survey except the way the surface was organised and the parade of citizens across it. Setting all these contradictions side by side was, I remember, very demanding. I was a double strengthexhabitant,too, because not only was I ‘visiting’ but I come from southern England. The south is softer and its images of industrial harshness are much more muted. I really appreciated the way Walsall Council understood that I wanted to do somethingurban. It is not good enough to hope that if you put everybody in a four-wheel-drive and send them shopping at Lakeview or Greenpond its going to be all right and everyone will be happy. I wanted to make a foruminWalsall, not one of those surgical transplants worn on the outside of our cities.
AJ I remember the first time I saw the dictionary with sweet wrappers [The title of this piece is, Tract (from Boost to Wham) 1992/3] I felt both shocked and moved, as though someone had told me the truth about something. What excited me most was that sweet wrappers are totally banal, and everybody’s got a dictionary; but the idea that brings them together is so potent it goes right to the heart of this deeper context you describe.
RW I think it is something to do with always having a good sense of smell for context, even as a child, and growing up in an era when there was a general reluctance to break with conformity. This question of context is interesting as I feel that I have got a very strong formal sense but I don’t actually want to make formal work. Intellectually I know I could do it but I feel that there is something within me that stops me from doing it, something which is very typically English.
When I go to the Catholic cultures of southern Europe I am aware how differently people behave. Whether this is to do with the climate or the religion or the politics I don’t know, but they have a very different feeling to the Protestant northern cultures. Imagine what would happen if we changed the physical distance between Britain and Europe, if the channel were say a hundred miles wide or eight miles wide? I think it has been very strange for our culture to be both too far away but also too close to Europe so that we end up both with all of the influences but none of them really. It is almost as though twenty two miles is exactly the wrong distance.
What I mean by formal can be seen throughout Thinking Aloud [Thinking Aloud was an exhibition curated by Richard Wentworth in 1999, the catalogue is available through Hayward Gallery Publishing]. But on a more basic level there are things like floorboards, which are such strange economic objects; which is partly to do with tree sizes, the economy of felling, what saws are happy to do, whether you move things whole or in parts. If you met somebody in the floorboard business they would either bore you with the history of board dimensions, or simply have no idea at all. But these things interest people like us; the nature of a board means you get a gap and the gaps mean you get a talkative surface. So something which we could talk about formally we could equally just talk about the difference between why wesiton this floor and what we think of it, as opposed to why welookat the ply wall [this is the lapped ply sheet cladding to our studio], which has a perfectly good origin in weatherboarding, but at a different scale, and those things are more or less able to accommodate what is demanded of them. The floorboard for example is a very good size when it comes to scribing and notching it around the chimney, which is another dimension of its size.
I am too restless and too neurotic to spend time concentrating on a single pursuit. Sean Scully’s painting for example I admire hugely, but I am much too uneasy to be able to do that; but that’s not to say that I don’t have very strong feelings about the kind of order they refer to, from hand-spans etc, to how we understand our sense of emotional order. What was very nice about Walsall was being able to let that part of me out; the bit that thinks about why is that stripe the right dimension. There was something about the Walsall project where I knew that if we could extend the project for the stripes of the square along the canal tow-path, to possess the canal as it were, it would make sense of the context. The local distortion of the stripes, caused by the form of the canal as it turns the corner, make them extremely difficult to understand. The apparent geometry is made nonsensical and questions are raised about whether they are the same stripes that were four hundred yards away back in the square. Of course they are, but this distortion helps to measure out the distance and the context that we are describing. I don’t know how long it took me to think that or to feel all that, but it was the nearest I have ever come to the dictionary being opened and the sweet wrappers blowing all over the street.