Gentrification is a hot topic in London these days, as house prices soar and areas which were once staunchly working class are gradually overrun. Now an acclaimed photobook which draws inspiration from the changing face of the city has become the basis for a show at The Photographers Gallery. Lorenzo Vitturi was inspired by the diverse community around Ridley Road market in Dalston, east London, which like many areas in the city finds itself undergoing dramatic change. Collecting materials from the market, Vitturi constructs complex temporary sculptures in his studio which are then photographed before, and sometimes after, they collapse back into their constituent parts.
These photographs, along with portraits of some of the market stallholders and locals (themselves often rephotographed after being overlaid with objects from the market) form the core of the exhibition. The gallery space is also dominated by several large sculpture-installations, which make this undeniably the most spatially ambitious show to inhabit the gallery since it reopened in 2012, and reflect Vitturi’s original career as a cinema set designer. Even the floor becomes part of the display, festooned with a large rug emblazoned with words taken from a poem which Vitturi commissioned local beat poet Sam Berkson to write about the market.
Vitturi’s tenuous sculptures work very effectively as metaphors for the multicultural, polysocial communities that dot London. Like his creations, these groups are often much more than the sum of their disparate parts, more fragile than they might seem from the outside, and once lost are virtually impossible to recreate. The components of the sculptures, which are mostly market foodstuffs in various states of decomposition, recall the fruit motifs of Dutch vanitas paintings, making these images feel rather appropriately like memento moris for the vanishing face and faces of London. In short the photographs are captivating, the exhibition is imaginative and ambitious, and the subject is deeply relevant.
Still I have some small misgivings about it, which perhaps stem more from personal connection to the subject than from anything fundamentally wrong with the work itself. Vitturi’s self-stated aim is to distil the essence of the market before it disappears, a goal which somewhat echoes the ambitions of photographers of the cast of Edward Curtis, a self-styled chronicler of the final days of Native America. There is an implication that like some antiquated tribe facing the onslaught of modernity, the disappearance of these London communities is rather inevitable, and that equally, like trying to challenge the force of gravity which is slowly tearing down Vitturi’s sculptures, it would be futile to resist.
Perhaps resistance is futile, and the best we can hope to do is record them before they pass away, but as someone who has grown up in such a community and has seen it change drastically in the past few years, I’m still not quite yet ready to accept that.
Dalston Anatomy is on at The Photographers Gallery until October 19th 2014.