Architecture of London at Guildhall Art Gallery takes an extensive look at a continually transforming city, presenting 80 works from the 17th century to the present day. Turner Prize-nominee Catherine Yass (b. 1963) is one of the featured artists, creating powerful photographic and video works exploring and questioning ideas of regeneration.
A: How did London come to be a source of inspiration for you?
CY: I have lived in London all my life, so it was the first material that was around me. I am passionate about all the recent developments – some good, some bad – that are changing the appearance and demographic of London. To me London has always been a wonderful mix of different cultures and of parks and buildings, but now those balances are tipping over in favour of financially led motives and Brexit fears.
A: Damage is a series of photographs taken and placed within everyday local public spaces, where they become weathered by the urban environment. Can you explain the process of making the images, and what this says about the city?
CY: The images are from neglected everyday places around where I live. I take them on large format transparency photographic film and then leave the transparencies in the place where they were taken, retrieving them later. For example, one of them was hung for a week from a drain in the street, another in the water for a week under the canal towpath, another on a road for a few minutes with glass and one for a few months under a bush in the park. The transparencies become scratched, muddied, or layers of emulsion peel off to reveal unexpected bright colours. Others are burnt. They are displayed on a light table like archaeological specimens.
The resulting damage is like the decaying parts of the city that die and reproduce themselves in a continuous process. Everything now is about regeneration, but history is embedded in the fabric of the urban environment which is fast disappearing in the name of the new.
A: This is the world premiere of The Last Stand. Can you discuss the themes behind the piece, and how they are articulated through video?
CY: In The Last Stand I am standing on the top of a concrete construction tower as the camera, suspended from a crane, circles around me. I am taking a last stand against the privatisation of the sky – the way it is being turned into real estate and filled up with concrete. It is a last stand against the dreamless lack of vision that characterises London’s development projects; a last stand against the number of building developments that do not provide genuinely affordable housing or non-commercial urban planning such as schools, community centres and doctors. At one point the crane swings round to show me facing the US embassy building all shielded like a fortress behind its facade. I am taking a stand against the Trump-led regime. However, in the image I am a tiny figure up on the concrete tower, and like all last stands I am bound to fail.
A: How do your artworks connect with the other pieces on display in Architecture of London?
CY: Most of the pieces in the exhibition are paintings, but there are parallels. There is a whole section dedicated to rebuilding London after WWII, and Last Stand is also a building site. The difference is that after the war there was an optimism and now the so-called regeneration is financially motivated. Many of the works in the exhibition are of the back streets and often overlooked aspects of London. My damaged transparencies are taken from the same subject matter.
The exhibition runs until 1 December. Find out more here.
Lead image: Catherine Yass, Damage (Glass, Street).