The Curious Art of Urban Decay

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The Curious Art of Urban Decay

For British artist Alex Chinneck, dilapidated neighborhoods are a blank canvas.

“Sliding House” (Photo courtesy Alex Chinneck)

Margate is one of those crusty British seaside towns where no one vacations anymore, now that they can fly to Disneyland Paris on Ryanair for a song. For London artist Alex Chinneck, that makes Margate the perfect canvas. “It’s economy just doesn’t have the energy to maintain the glory it once had,” he says.

It’s that faded glory that inspired him to build “Sliding House,” a three-story sculpture who’s real name — “From the Knees of My Nose to the Belly of My Toes” — is such a mouthful that even the artist himself doesn’t call it that. Chinneck took a dilapidated three-story row house and, with the help of a team of construction workers, made the facade appear to be sloughing off it into a gentle heap on the ground.

The result is both striking and easy to miss — you could picture pedestrians walking right past the monumental sculpture and never noticing it. Despite this, the work has generated plenty of attention. “It’s had this really positive impact, from what I understand,” says Chinneck. Ironically, the sculpture, which plays off themes of urban decay, is helping to revitalize the block. “It’s attracted thousands of visitors. Estate agents now use the sliding house as a tool for their sales.”

Chinneck’s work is a literal example of a popular theory: that arts and culture can be catalysts for economic growth in cities — a theory for which Margate is a poster child. The town has been in decline since tourism began moving elsewhere years ago, but now, says Chinneck, “A lot of cultural investment is taking place, artists are moving there, galleries are opening. They’re trying to use culture as a tool for regeneration.”

“Broken Windows” (Photo courtesy Alex Chinneck)

This idea has come under some criticism in recent years, a bit of Creative Class backlash in cities where neighborhoods, once revived with the help of artists, are now displacing those artists with sky-high rents. Chinneck is sensitive to this, but he has no problem with using arts as a tool for economic growth, as long as it’s done with a light touch and input from the public. “I think it requires incredibly careful management, and in that respect it requires careful curation,” says Chinneck. “If an area or district is rebranding as this new cultural territory it needs a curatorial focus.”

One example of this curatorial touch might be seen in Chinneck’s “Broken Windows” work (again, with a lengthy official name: “Telling the Truth Through False Teeth.”) For this work, he installed 312 identically smashed windows in a condemned factory in Hackney, a postindustrial section of London that, like Margate, is beginning to gentrify. Like “Sliding House,” it’s easy to overlook. “What I like most about it is that it has this ability to disappear, even though it’s a very large sculpture,” he says. “It very neatly fits the architecture, but also the district, with its strange mix of crime, artistic activity and regeneration.”

That mix forms the inspiration for much of Chinneck’s work, which has also included an upside facade on a row house in London, and concrete rugs made from pieces of paving slab. “What I liked about that work is it neatly intertwines with the district, but also the nature of Hackney itself,” he says of “Broken Windows.” “Its an area that’s gone through a period of rapid regeneration-slash-gentrification, so you have this real conflict — not conflict, but muddle of wealth and opinions, and you have these dilapidated buildings integrated with new buildings and artists, so that represented the arrival of culture into an area of dilapidation and high crime, because it made the image of dilapidation somehow poetic and positive.”

Will Doig was formerly Next City’s international editor. He's worked as a columnist at Salon, an editor at The Daily Beast, a lecturer at the New School, and a communications staffer at the Open Society Foundations. He is the author of High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia, published by Columbia Global Reports.

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Tags: arts and cultureurban designlondon

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