Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah zine examined the psycho-geography of London's streets, coinciding with the influx of wealth into previously impoverished areas. In contrast, her new artworks portray a more colourful world of energy and activity...
Surbiton station isn't the first place you'd expect to meet Laura Oldfield Ford. It is almost a decade since her zine Savage Messiah began garnering attention among the east London art crowd. Her post-subcultural blend of prose, drawings and collages seemed to flicker like pointed lights in the dusk of a city. There was a clear enemy: the "yuppies" moving into a Hackney once known for cheap rents and alternative culture but was becoming an area at the mercy of offshore landlords.
We walk from Surbiton to Ford's show at Kingston University's Stanley Picker Gallery, where the Yorkshire-born artist and serial walker has been working in residence for the past year, over pavements scattered with orange and pink leaves and the odd orphaned offie bag, past houses with curious names and well-tended hedgerows. At the show, Seroxat, Smirnoff, THC, her depictions of domestic interiors and back yards overtaken by buddleia and weeds, and feverishly handwritten rave-era memories, fizz with sublime potential.
Where her work was once characterised by its monochrome tone, more colour has seeped in of late, notably at last year's Tate Britain group show, Ruin Lust. The new paintings emanate a casual defiance woven into a beatific melancholy, depicting young members of the Occupy movement hunkered down in an abandoned office block and the strange claustrophobia of a construction workers' hotel room. After taking in the show, we walk to the brutalist Travelodge above a Lidl in the middle of Kingston where she lived on and off during her residency.
So staying at the Travelodge was an epiphanic moment?
It gave me an insight into the experience of migrant workers. There were loads of blokes there on their own, contractors from Yorkshire working on these luxury developments on the river, taking McDonalds and beer and stuff up to their room. It just gave me a completely different perspective as to how many people there are passing through. At places like Hounslow, too, a lot of people are living like that. In garden sheds in back lanes and portacabins in the middle of waste ground.
How did the project come to fruition?
I got appointed last July. I spent a whole year walking around, all over - I followed the path of the River Wandle, from Wandsworth, right down to Collier's Wood and beyond, and I've been walking around Croydon a lot, since the riots kicked off in 2011. It still smells scorched and burnt.
Where did you find the mug shots of three young rioters in the triptych?
Off the Metropolitan Police Flickr page. It was like these kids were being pilloried, with their names and addresses published. It was totally about revenge and humiliation. I thought by making these paintings it was more about exposing how young, vulnerable, and how good looking they were. There is a slightly elegiac quality to a lot of this work. Religion and spirituality is important in the suburbs these days.
There isn't that all-conquering subculture filling the space.
In the areas that I have been spending a lot of time in, like Hounslow and Croydon - and all the way round London: Edmonton, Barking, Lewisham - religion is at the forefront. Big African churches, mosques, the Catholic churches in areas with Eastern European populations. A lot of these places are standing in where the left would have once had a robust community there to fight for people and create a sense of solidarity and support. But there is an emancipatory potential in spirituality. It can transcend the individualistic nature of capitalism. People shouldn't despair just because people are articula ting these things through religion - it's not always such a big leap.
There is a brilliant phrase in the blurb for the show: "Time has been co opted".
It's about poaching time. So much has been locked down. Not just physical space, but the time we are allowed to drift and think and have those moments of unravelling. On the dole you always have to appear to be busy. The only people who are able to pursue any sort of intellectual enquiry or really develop skills as a writer, an artist or a musician are the wealthy. We're seeing that already with intern culture, from acting, politics, to visual art.
Text Tim Burrows
Photography Ellie Laycock