Wrecking at Private Siding 661
at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Project, London
installation materials: reclaimed bricks, broken perspex, fluorescent lighting, cane woven human transporter,
38 page blueprint document, led lighting, glass bottle, knitted weights with raw wool linings, ropes and pulleys.
room size 6.8 x 3.4 x 20 metres
size of cane woven basket 1.8 x 1.3 metres
A cane woven human transporter, or landing basket, has crashed through the ceiling of the accumulator tower of a disused hydraulic power station in Wapping. After careening pendulously still attached by pulleys and ropes, it rests useless in the space, now a derelict historical relic. However, the layers of construction, embedded in this prop-like object are purposefully visible. Evidence of the object’s crash is found by entering through a smashed hole in a piece of new brickwork, an entrance that was bricked up due to dereliction is now obstructed and revealed. Similarly, the ceiling through which the relic has crashed is clearly made from white Perspex with neatly pointed edges, the foil that aids in its lighting visible, as is the fluorescent lighting itself, resting above this fake ceiling’s edge. It is as if Wrecking at Private Siding 661 presents us with the exact moment when filming stops, the camera pulls back and the actors are shown to be performing, where the props are revealed as unreal objects, the room a set. Stepping into the tower we are stepping into the reveal – a cinematic cultural memory manifested here within a physical space.
This ‘revealing’ mirrors BB’s research practice, uncovering personal and colonial histories while simultaneously making evident the constructions inherent in such ‘true’ and ‘whole’ narratives. The central object of Wrecking at Private Siding 661 is the landing basket made in the cottage craft tradition. This object for human transportation arrives from BB’s investigation into the history of the colonial immigrant from Britain to South Africa. From the 1890s to 1930s, during the development of the harbour in East London, South Africa, immigrants arriving at sea would have stepped into a landing basket, like Baker’s, being hoisted down into smaller boats, which would take them to their new home. 1890 was the year celebrating the arrival of BB’s great-grandparents to East London, South Africa. It was also the year that the Wapping hydraulic power station became active in London as we are told by an historical plaque on the site, a marker of history legitimized through its lasting materiality and visible aging.
The site of BB’s project then is the conceptual and physical, spatial gap between this power station on the Thames in East London and the Buffalo River, East London, South Africa, as well as the chasm of time and lost history between now and then, immigrant family and granddaughter, historical subject and artist.
To begin her research BB traveled to her hometown in South Africa to visit the East London museum, a place she visited during her childhood and where she first encountered photographic images of the landing basket – a symbol of the strangeness of the initial encounter of the British immigrants with South Africa. Moving from this moment of arrival, BB explores the brief, and ultimately failed, British colonial project through her own family’s involvement as independent wool brokers in the East London (South Africa) wool industry up until 1977 when her father and grandfather died (and incidentally the same year that the Wapping hydraulic power station closed down).
In making her own journey to retrieve this history, BB found not only the image of the landing basket, but also the ‘real’ relic that is now replicated through cyanotype and attached to the front of BB’s object – a blueprint letter, a replica of one written by her grandfather in 1975 which refers to an attached biography, or history, of the Baker family’s wool company. The attached document, however, is lost. The letter tells us of a text that is now invisible, outside of both official and familial historical narratives. Behind this letter are more blueprints of (‘real’) newspaper articles, some written by BB’s father about his fears for the future of East London, its port and the wool industry, the latter which was subsequently appropriated by the Afrikaner government and moved to Port Elizabeth, indicating the slowing down of economic growth of the then “Border” region.
Through historical pilgrimage, BB discovers otherwise invisible moments of familial and colonial narratives. Tasked with only photographic proof of the basket, BB supervises the construction and subsequent aging of her landing basket, cane woven by the Cape Town Blind Society, having it shipped to London - returning an incongruous object to a place where it would never have been seen, but a ‘home’ common to those who would have experienced it as a ghost.
As the viewer walks around this strange, failed relic, they find a glowing glass soda bottle, a piece of treasure uncovered by the artist, and waiting to be discovered. The bottle in fact has been (re)cast with the name of BB’s family’s wool company emblazoned on the side – further legitimizing BB’s personal history, though only within the staged museum she has constructed. Stepping out, then, through the hole in BB’s wall, the viewer embodies the action of the British immigrants ducking to exit the landing basket.
Once a literal generator of power, the accumulator tower now exists solely outside of its function, without power, powerless, a memorial only to itself. And if you look closely, the weights on the bottom of BB’s landing basket are filled with unrefined sheep’s wool, a material that would fail, inevitably, to ground this momentous object.
text by Linda Stupart
edited by BB
cane woven basket manufactured by The Society for the Blind in Cape Town, South Africa
additional props sourced in Cape Town and East London, South Africa
key ageing effects by Francois de Flamingh, Cape Town
bottle cast by Tom van Hove, Edge Glass Gallery, Cape Town
additional ageing effects and cyanotype documents by BB
preliminary drawings by Gabi Alberts
weights manufactured by BB and Storm Makings
shipping by MSC Adriatic
customs clearance in South Africa by DRA Customs Clearance and Forwarding
customs clearance in the UK by Whalin Logistics
research assistance in East London, South Africa
Glynis Smith at the Daily Dispatch newspaper library
historians Keith Tankard and Gill Vernon
Kevin Cole at the East London Museum
Josh Wright, Daniel Isherwood, Storm Makings and BB
© images Bridget Baker
image credits BB and Daniel Isherwood