Avenues and Alleyways: Reframing the Streets

We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. 

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

From a cup of coffee with a friend, to jetting off on a foreign holiday, Covid denied us most of life’s pleasures. Those of us who loved to visit art galleries missed the sensory and intellectual stimulation of real-life encounters with paintings, sculptures and installations. We pined for the chance to investigate even the smallest pop-up exhibition. 

For some, such denials meant engaging with the outside world in new ways, such as delivering supplies to vulnerable neighbours. For me, it also involved the realisation that from scaffolded houses to lost cat posters, my neighbourhood was full of things that could be experienced as art; that if, during my permitted one hour of exercise a day, I examined streets and public spaces as I would a display at the White Cube or the Tate, I could reawaken the delight of stepping into a gallery.  

My initial experiences existed in small, but interesting, shifts in perspective. From old lags drunkenly raging outside corner shops, to masked delivery drivers sterilising plastic crates, to strutting women bawling down the phone at errant boyfriends – everyone became a performance artist riffing on the desperate state of things. I now saw deep sadness in the feline eyes on missing cat posters – pictures I had hardly looked at before – the spidery handwriting and severe fonts reflecting the social anxieties gnawing away at us all. 

Then there was the rustle of leaves, pop music blaring from open windows, birdsong, the rumble of trains, squealing car tyres. What were once imperceptible background noises of urban life fused together into a sound-art composition, a soundscape of jagged, shifting rhythms that kept me intrigued and attentive. 

the spidery handwriting and severe fonts reflecting the social anxieties gnawing away at us all. 

Trees became living sculptures: from winter’s bare fingers, to spring’s colourful explosion, to summer’s soothing greenery, I got to watch magnolias, Japanese maples, and simple London planes change day-to-day and season-to-season. Pulling down a branch of the trees to smell their blossoms and leaves provided me with rare moments of pure pleasure.   

Over time, I also found myself appreciating the gardens I passed as I went on my way. From re-wilded lawns, to well-maintained flower beds and privet hedges, to stone and wood spaces echoing Andy Goldsworthy’s land art – the streets surrounding my house did not disappoint. Such eye-catchingly organised flora furthered my contemplation, moving my attention beyond immediate sensory information such as sight, sound and smell. Instead, I began, as when looking at a piece of work in a gallery, to intellectualise the experience, asking questions about the intentions behind what I encountered. In this case: how to order an outdoor area so it brings maximum joy?  

It was when I took the time to look properly at the houses I passed, interrogating them in greater detail than I had any buildings before, that the perceptions of my surroundings shifted more profoundly. Ordinary homes suddenly mutated into monument-sized sculptures, 3D discussions of how best to articulate space, material and form. In this frame of mind I recognised how the gabling on on local Victorian piles echoed the carpentry of Medieval rood screens. Houses whose building work was stopped during the lockdowns wore their plastic-wrapped scaffolding for months longer than normal, prompting me to think that Christo had sprinkled his trademark installations across the neighbourhood. And a nearby end-terrace, painted pitch black with dayglo stripes, took on the appearance of a Mexican calavera.   

From such an expansive and figurative perspective, where everything is a beautiful reference to something else, even dilapidated garages, their crumpled roofs and walls covered in creeper vines and defaced with graffiti, took on a derelict allure. Pausing to read the writing on the doors of a garage near my home, I took the juxtaposed stories scrawled across its flaking paintwork as a community gazette, a living, breathing gossip column representing a place both distinctly familiar and suddenly unrecognisable. A space where residents reported lusts and love affairs (‘TO4AG4eva’, ‘Reever is a top sort’), local vendettas (‘Jo-jo gunna get it’), and bragging rights (‘I shagged yr mum’, ‘Barnsey was here 9T9’).

I took the juxtaposed stories scrawled across its flaking paintwork as a community gazette

It turns out I didn’t need to travel far to experience the potential positives of alienation that Eliot refers to in ‘Little Gidding’. One afternoon I found myself staring at a mid-terrace in East Dulwich and the question I realised every house is trying to answer popped into my head: what is the best way to live? 

One place in particular brought together this probing of my surroundings for art references, the questions about how to live, and the possibility of seismic small-town dramas – an abandoned stationery shop at the bottom of a steep hill. Behind the shop’s dirty windows and collapsed blinds stood dusty furniture, seemingly tipped over and left for dead by the last person who stormed out the door. Yellowing calendars and fragments of headed note paper dating from the 1990s littered the threadbare carpet. From my ‘your neighbourhood is an art gallery’ point of view, the interior’s ghost-town debris and the disintegrating exterior – dark peeling signs, rotten grey door frames, filthy white window ledges covered in deep cracks – took on the appearance of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting; a dense textual and visual reference formed by a striking, unsettling colour palette. And like any Basquiat canvas the shop contained more questions that it answered: what’s the story? Why did someone leave and not come back? These inquiries led me to the opposite query from that proposed by the other buildings: why did someone feel that this shop wasn’t the best way to live? 

It’s easy to think of our neighbourhoods as ordinary and functional, cobbled together from elements that get day-to-day life done without much artistic fanfare. But as Eliot suggests, and as I discovered on my expeditions, seeing the familiar as though for the first time brings into focus the potential beauty of our mundane surroundings. 

These things, once thought of as ugly or banal, now intrigue and engage like works of art, prompting emotional responses and profound questions just as a painting or poem might… it’s a formula that is worth repeating, for you never know what understanding might be unlocked when you walk through a new door of perception.

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