Rachel Whiteread, ‘A: Clapton Park Estate, Mandeville Street, London E5; Ambergate Court; Norbury Court; October 1993’ 1996
Rachel Whiteread
A: Clapton Park Estate, Mandeville Street, London E5; Ambergate Court; Norbury Court; October 1993 1996
© Rachel Whiteread

City as Found Object

London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It is illimitable.
Peter Ackroyd

The end of the twentieth century has seen London proclaimed ‘the world’s coolest city’ by Newsweek magazine. Restaurants, clubs and bars are thriving. At the same time, homelessness has risen, and public transport is on the verge of collapse. At the beginning of the 1960s, half of the jobs in London were in manufacturing. That figure is now less than one in ten, and financial services have become the most significant source of revenue. London has been transformed into a post-industrial metropolis.

Ironically, it was a recession that laid the groundwork for London’s thriving art scene. In 1987, £50 billion was wiped off share values in a single day, signalling the end of a stocks and property boom. Former shops, offices and warehouses became available on cheap, short-term leases as studios and exhibition spaces. Young artists, some still at art school, began to promote themselves outside the established gallery system. Their work was clever, accessible and often funny. A nation rarely concerned with modern art woke up and began to take notice.

Since the 1990s, an aesthetic that is particular to London has linked the worlds of fashion, music, design and fine art. It is vernacular, recycled, humorous, able to draw poetic beauty from the ordinary and humdrum. The city is more than just a platform for international success: it has become a catalyst, a theme, and a source of inspiration. 

Curated by Emma Dexter, senior curator at Tate Modern.

Street life

The 1990s saw a number of artists turn to the city itself for inspiration, materials and a way of connecting with a wider world. Gillian Wearing’s video Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw yesterday down Walworth Road celebrates London’s power to throw up chance encounters. Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas brought art into the streets by opening their own shop in Bethnal Green where they sold their work. Gary Hume’s use of ordinary household gloss paint reflects an aesthetic of the everyday shared by many London artists.

Urban reality

For most of its residents, London life has little connection with the city portrayed in tourist brochures. Runa Islam conveys this gritty reality by recording the rubbish regularly dumped outside her home. Janette Parris’s Skint reflects the continual presence of the homeless on London’s streets. In Wolfgang Tillmans’s photographs, the city’s architecture is contrasted with glimpses of the distant glamour symbolised by Concorde. Architecture is also a theme for Rachel Whiteread who pictures tower blocks on the point of demolition, and for Inventory, who use a map of a council estate as the backdrop for a graffitied analysis of urban geography. A different side of London life is provided by Henry Bond and Liam Gillick, who posed as journalists to gatecrash a series of press conferences and other events, documenting their experiences.

Mixing it

A characteristic of the London art scene is the fluidity of exchange between different disciplines. Style magazines like i-D and Dazed and Confused combine fashion, design and fine art, publishing works such as Nick Knight’s groundbreaking photographs of disabled models. Designer Paul Elliman approaches the creation of typefaces with the ingenuity of an artist. Tord Boontje transforms furniture design into a political act, recycling bits of wood found in skips near his studio, and publishing instructions inviting the public to do the same.

The traditionally separate roles of artist, curator and dealer have been combined by groups such as City Racing, an artist-run gallery space situated in a former betting shop. Collectives, such as Bank and Inventory, have also challenged the idea of individual creativity by producing work authored by the group.

Art of the everyday

Like many artists working in London today, Tom Dixon, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin draw on everyday materials and subject matter. Chris Ofili’s Shithead, made using elephant dung and human hair, takes this ‘back to basics’ aesthetic to extremes. Ordinariness is also a theme of Go-Sees, a record kept by fashion photographer Juergen Teller of the endless stream of girls who appear uninvited on his doorstep hoping to be the next Kate Moss. Other artists such as Michael Landy, Gavin Turk and Johnny Spencer produce work that aspires to blend back into the urban surroundings, or to disappear among the signs and plaques of the gallery itself.