Streets of Gold   3 Apr 2012

Anna Blair

Streets of Gold is an exhibition that may have a personal pull for New Zealanders in the United Kingdom, exploring immigration to London through four installations. The exhibition includes the work of James Voller, a Christchurch artist now living in London.

Streets of Gold offers visitors to the Museum of London a lot to look at and think about. All four installations are by artists who have recently immigrated to London. Artists use objects drawn from the Museum’s collection in composing their works.

Streets of Gold has been organised by Motiroti, an organisation using art to promote community engagement with the benefits of immigration, and curated by Daniel Saul.

Motiroti’s director, Tim Jones, notes “the exhibition is timely”. While news often focuses on negative discourse surrounding immigration, it’s often migrants who lead companies and are influential entrepreneurs. In Streets of Gold, it’s migrants who offer new perspectives that appeal to a range of audiences.

Golbanou Moghaddas shows her own beautifully intricate works on paper with a print from the museum collection, river imagery and poetry acting as connecting devices. Opposite, Alberta Whittle’s brightly coloured piece explores the juncture between imperial imagery and personal travel souvenirs. Theatre and performance artists Bojana Jankovic and Dana Olarescu resurrect a number of scripts found in the ephemera stores of the Museum of London, showing the way in which individuals experience, and are sometimes disappointed by, moving to London.

James Voller’s contribution to Streets of Gold pairs London’s blitz with Christchurch’s earthquake. His photographic installation looks at the way in which cities experience destruction and rebuilding. London and Christchurch are, here, separated by both geography and two generations, but together offer insight into how communities respond to disasters. Visitors open doors inset in Voller’s photographs of London’s Square Mile to find photos from the museum collection and accounts of the Christchurch earthquake spoken by Londoners.

This work is personal for Voller. Arriving in London just over a year ago, he found it difficult to imagine what large-scale urban destruction would be like to experience. In February 2011, he heard about the Christchurch earthquake on the news. This brought its own set of complicated feelings –Voller’s hometown is being shaped by events he’s absent from, experiencing second-hand from the other side of the world.

Some of the stories spoken by Londoners in Streets of Gold are those of the artist’s friends in Christchurch. Voller’s parents, who still live in Christchurch, are coming to London this weekend to see the exhibition. Voller himself has not returned since before the earthquake.

Voller chose the buildings photographed in order to show London’s change through time. Voller’s photograph of the Royal Exchange shows a building as it was before World War II, now populated with 21st century figures. Golden Lane is one of London’s most significant post-war housing estates. Broadgate, an icon of 1980s capitalist culture, represents the more futuristic breed of architecture found in the Square Mile. They’re all strong choices for capturing the character of the City of London.

Archival photos are positioned in relation to Voller’s 2011 images. Bill Brandt’s image of a crowd on bunk beds in a shelter is in sharp contrast to the lone figures reading, smoking or engaged with their mobile phones on the steps of the Royal Exchange. Talking about the choice of image, Voller comments on the interesting human changes that occur in disaster situations. Where things would normally be dealt with procedurally, boundaries between people collapse and there can be greater communication and camaraderie.

Another photograph, by Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs, shows firefighters amidst the destruction of the Blitz. This is positioned within the photograph of Broadgate; while the two images show very different periods in time, shapes are echoed.

While Motiroti work with artists, there’s a big emphasis on preparing work that’s appropriate for the audience of the Museum of London rather than a fine arts audience. Voller’s photographs, taken on film, have been printed on latex. There’s much less protocol in museums about not touching work and interaction is encouraged, hence the doors that visitors open to watch the videos and see the archival photos in Voller’s pieces.

Voller has enjoyed creating work for a museum setting. He finds the straightforward way in which ideas can be communicated in museums appealing, with less presumed on the part of the viewer than in the art world. His works succeed in this context, communicating clearly to a broad audience without losing their complexity or emotive value.

Motiroti work with artists and institutions internationally. Tim Jones tells me that they’ve talked to the Auckland Festival about possible collaborations in future. This also isn’t the end for Streets of Gold, which is on offer to museums internationally as a process and a format.

Voller is planning to begin a PhD next year, but isn’t sure whether he’ll remain in the UK or study in Australia, where he did his Masters. For the meantime, he’s happy to be in London, where there’s a large artistic community and easier access to film, and has future exhibition plans here.

Streets of Gold is worth seeing at the Museum of London before it closes on April 15th. Both James Voller and Motiroti are worth looking out for in future, with engaging work that’s relevant to many New Zealanders in the United Kingdom.

Anna Blair is a freelance writer and architectural historian studying hotels from the 1920s. She currently divides her time between Paris and East London. Further work can be found at her blogDispatches from Europe.


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