West End whammy: Tom Wolseley’s “House”

Tom Wolseley’s “House” is on show at “Another Room”, ROOM London, 30 Manchester Street, London W1U 7LQ, 10 October – 9 December 2012.

ROOM London, site and subject of Tom Wolseley’s excellent short film “House”.

One object of an art trawl is to discover talented artists I’ve never come across before, and on a day-long West End jaunt I’ve just found two whose installations struck me as outstanding. They weren’t showing at established big hitters like Pace, David Zwirner and Michael Werner (where I spotted Luc Tuymans striding handsomely down the stairs, having perhaps popped round from his own swish display at Zwirner to see the Peter Doig show). No, the artists in question were at younger, smaller spaces – the kind that used to entail a trip to the East End, but which have now decisively re-congregated around Mayfair and Fitzrovia. They were Tom Wolseley at ROOM London, and Cipriano Martinez at Maddox Arts, and though their work couldn’t look more different, both are concerned with urban landscapes, and the places we inhabit and abandon. Below, I discuss Tom Wolseley.

Tom Wolseley’s “House” (2012), projected onto his artfully distressed wall.

ROOM London’s inaugural group show “Another Room” features six artists “responding to the space”, as artists are wont to do. The space responded to here is 30 Manchester Street in Marylebone, a grand old Georgian house whose previous incarnation appears to have been as a warren of cheaply-converted flats. It is now gutted and partly burnt out (not surprising seeing the archaeological dig of fuseboxes in the hall) – the kind of edgily evocative interior more usually associated with the East End, and so fascinating to see turned over to art projects in glossy West One. It’s a natural habitat for the participants’ installations of found objects, swirly carpet, superannuated audiovisual equipment and the like, with Christie Brown’s baleful ceramic figurines and Juliette Losq’s oddly vaginal hearth installation of delicate drawings having particular impact on their sites. However it’s always hard to form an impression of unfamiliar artists’ work in a small group show, so dallying through the lugubrious gloom I was excited to find, in the far basement room, a genuinely standout standalone piece: “House”, a narrated short film by Tom Wolseley.

At first I thought the measured, calmingly rhythmic commentary was Will Self declaiming one of his psychogeographical tracts, such was its verbal and vocal quality; but it proved to be both written and read by the artist, whose words alone are compelling enough to engage attention. This is necessary, as the film at first looks stalled – just a frame of white light shivering on the flaking wall while the narrator recounts strange architectural dreams he’s had in his flat above an old pub in London’s Elephant and Castle (an area vastly less picturesque than its name suggests).

Just as the viewer is losing patience, a flicker of movement animates the scene, and the camera starts to pull back, gradually framing a wide shot of the very same wall it is projected onto: thus allowing the realisation that the patch of light at the start was actually a shot of the exact area it was illuminating. In a self-reflexive double whammy, the artist at this point admits that the wall’s charmingly peeling surface is just a bit of DIY distressing created to add visual interest, one of several tips for successful tracking shots suggested by a filmmaker mate.

As the camera continues to slide gracefully backwards, it reveals not just the room around it, but the wonky hand-built rails it runs along to create the tracking shot, while the artist tells a colourful tale of reclaiming his raw materials from dodgy geezers at the ex-Olympics site. Eventually the camera retreats from the room entirely, passing through further empty chambers and a long corridor leading to the basement’s front door, all the while focusing unwaveringly on the increasingly distant spot it will later be projected upon.

Viewing “House” from the end of the corridor, which the camera gradually retreats down.

There’s little to see as the building has been virtually stripped bare, but Wolseley’s fluent musings mine every shabby detail for significance, from the 1980s-style repro glass doors he hates, to the crummy Ikea bedsitland spotlights, to the narrow wood-shelved pantry that’s never been modernised, lurking like a capsule of history beneath the streets of London. All this is threaded with memories of his own unconventional childhood home in a complex of freezing, decaying buildings, and his adult attempts to refurbish the aforementioned pub-flat in a controversially gentrifying part of South London.

Turning one’s head back to look at the real corridor he’s filming from, it’s clear that the camera will soon hit the basement’s front door, and tension mounts as we wait to learn how the artist will conclude his shaggy house story upon reaching it. Pleasingly, he ends just as deftly as he began, via a passage in the passageway about the societal meaning of our homes past and present, how that relates to the very building under examination, and out beyond to the state of the nation today. Finally he backs up against the front door, the light filters in gently as it opens a crack, and the film draws to a halt.

Outside view of the shabby basement housing “House”, and the front door where the film ends.

Thus in just a few engrossing metres and minutes, this elegant polemic has traversed a span of 40 years and addressed the UK’s slow, inexorable glide from socialism to selfishness, from egalitarianism to inequality, from bust to boom and back again. And all without needing to utter the all-too-obvious word a fellow viewer felt compelled to spit out at the end of it: “Thatcher”.

With or without its loaded site, Tom Wolseley’s film is a clever and considered tour de force which wouldn’t have looked out of place at Documanta 13, and it made me want to see and hear much more of his work – not to mention what’s coming next at this atmospheric West End venue.

Tom Wolseley, “Another Room”, 10 October – 9 December 2012
ROOM London, 30 Manchester Street, London W1U 7LQ (map)
www.roomartspace.co.uk, www.tomwolseley.com, www.architrope.com

Another Thatcher reference at ROOM: Falklands-era Daily Mail on the stairs, part of an installation by Mimi Joung.

ROOM’s hall, with installation by Charlie Billingham, another artist in the six-person exhibition “Another Room”.

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