Review: Estuary at The Museum of London Docklands

Thames forts William Raban
Stephen Turner

Estuary brings together twelve artists who have in various ways explored the mud flats, inlets and bays of the Thames estuary, a strange territory between land and sea, city and country, which has inspired artists, writers and photographers for centuries. Having once photographed a project about a small part of this area I was curious to see how others had depicted it, and went along to the rather awkwardly located venue, perched on the edge of the high rises and expensive eateries of the Isle of Dogs.

The art on show in Estuary is fairly diverse, encompassing painting, photography and video installations, and work which in some cases bridges the boundaries between these categories. For example Christine Baumgartner’s beautiful photograveures of rusting boats are a delight, perhaps intended to evoke an imagined memory of the Battle of Medway after which the work is named. Similarly Stephen Turner’s Seafort Project mixes stills, audio and text in a dual screen video installation documenting his thirty six day stay on one of these rusting, tripod-like hulks, leftover anti-aircraft platforms from the Second World War.

Other works are maybe more conventional, like Peter Marshall’s seascape video inspired by J.M.W Tuner’s paintings at Margate. There are also Gayle Chong Kwan’s instagram photographs of rubbish washed up along the shore of the Thames, perhaps one of the weaker bodies of work but still nicely presented and at times visually surprising. A Simon Roberts photograph also gets a look in near the exit, a view of Southend Pier from a recent project on these Victorian relics.

All the participants rather come across as artists with a capital A, responding to a brief rather than reacting to a desire. I felt no great sense of a connection between work and place, with one or two exceptions. Michael Andrew’s paintings for example stood apart for me, perhaps down to the intimacy of the media, Andrew’s own story (these were amongst his final paintings) or perhaps the fact they were done on Canvey Island, a place I have my own links to.

Another thing I found frustrating about the show was that the residents of the region are noticeably absent, and where they appear it is almost always as small, voiceless figures, almost exactly the opposite of my experience of many of them as loud, large, characters. Indeed given the cultural influence of this tiny part of the country (one need only think of the ubiquity of estuary English) it feels like a missed opportunity not to have explored where this sprung from.

It is a landscape show of course, but one of the things that I have always found fascinating about this area is how closely entwined the geography and people often seem to be. Equally while the landscapes on show in Estuary are familiar ones of industrial decay and lingering rubbish, I sense this may also be a view of this territory that few residents, and those familiar with the place, will really recognise. Estuary is on at The Museum of London Docklands until 27th October 2013.

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