A Fortnightly Review.
by Matthew Turner.
Gordian Projects 2020 | 80pp | £10.00
By MICHAEL HAMPTON.
EVEN BEFORE OPENING a copy of Matthew Turner’s Loom, which the publisher describes as a ‘novella of psychotic architectures’, the minimalist arthouse cover of oversized titular lettering and shiny gold rings hung on a Mallarméan white background declares itself to be a product of the contemporary art world, as if a literary annex and elaboration of the white cube aesthetic. Perhaps this eye-catching jacket design had been subliminally affected by the Christmas market, its über-cool credentials meant to attract a readership long since graduated from Penguin paperbacks? Cleverly though, by breaking down the usual demarcation between cover and contents, we are prepped in advance for an abnormal, slightly giddying experience: the perfect bound object both text and textile.
As a story though, Loom starts in the most humdrum way, as its main protagonist hovers on a kerb waiting for traffic to clear in order to cross the road. However, at this very moment his attention is caught by a single gold filament that’s become snagged by the weave of his own overcoat. This provides a thread to follow, as the writer/artist’s methodology unwinds, while the street in question turns out to be no ordinary thoroughfare, but The Bishops Avenue N2, said to be the wealthiest row of houses in London, and a nirvana for estate agents (according to Zoopla, the average price of property in December 2020 was £7.5 million). Employed as a caretaker, Loom’s unnamed narrator has privileged access to a run down Bauhaus-type family home, the kind of rectilinear modernist building of the 1930s (think Isokon flats), and clean-cut European architecture so vilified by John Betjeman, which must have looked like an oddity to the average Londoner of the period, so used to sooty Victorian terraces. Turner describes the road as
a Potemkin, glutted with overblown mockeries of Tudor, Classical and Modernist style architecture. Cheap plastic signs emblazoned with stately portraits of aggressive looking Alsatians are cable tied to the railings, warning of surveillance.
But the irony is that many of these grand houses are rotting away, derelict investment opportunities belonging to overseas owners too rich to care, hulks that loom over a hollowed-out London, resentfully living under unenforceable Tier 5 Covid-19 protocols. These are domestic ruins, posh addresses with flytipped bin bags, syringes, dried up fountains, where nature has come indoors, and Persian carpets act as grow bags for rare orchids. Identifiable plants such as vetch, charlock and ragged robin feature in the line drawings which are an integral part of Loom, along with manhole covers, telephone inputs, floral wallpaper, Italian marble, brickwork, cables, wire barbs, duct pipes, knots, parquet, keyholes etc., an inventory of stuff that gives the fiction a basis in the everyday, Turner’s flat writing a product of the digital age transposed onto blank paper: immaterial retro-fiction. This depthless quality is a manifestation of the psychosis on show here, the quiet mania of an avatar-like narrator unable to tell where his mirrored self ends and the world begins, or focused OCDstyle on minutiae, to cope with information overload. He haunts a wrecked space (a substrate of the house has been forensically examined for its elusive owner’s dirty money), looking for solace in
Those unknowable whispering cavities, between walls, under stairs, in the hollow of doors, intricate rococo warrens gnawed through concrete foundations.
In the process, the narrator, the house, and London itself (which features as an oblique presence) have all been made utterly strange, and Turner’s Loom, with its fluctuation from Swiftian close-up to chilly filmic overview, places him alongside other recent London topographical explorations of the capital city as uncanny per se, viz Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp (2012), Gareth E. Rees’s Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London (2013), and Marko Jobst’s A Ficto-Critical Theory of the London Underground (2017),1 where research-driven defamiliarization, or a ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’ as supercritic Arthur C. Danto put it, turns life into art, and, particularly in Turner’s case, curates decay.
Only an on-site security guard in a ‘creased Oxford shirt’ provides any social normality, a slacker who makes himself known by an occasional creaky floorboard or burst of unintelligible radio static, though interactions are off-hand and loaded with menace. And yet in a classic plot twist it becomes clear that the protagonist is not who he says he is, ie a casual handyman, but an undercover operative, a maniac who has returned to salvage a personal cache of gold concealed at the house, revealing too that the build was a design based on Adolf Loos’s functionalist Villa Müller in Prague (now a museum ̶ of itself! ̶ and behind Lucy McKenzie’s 2013 installation Loos House, described by Jonathan Griffin in Frieze as ‘an act of deliberate slippage, a provocative mistranslation’, words which could equally apply to Loom). So then, having found and tugged on a golden thread embedded in plasterboard, his treasure unravels completely in a glistening spool, and this phoney caretaker escapes with the sound of police car sirens in the background. Loom has all the hallmarks of a parable, a new take on the anxieties surrounding art as derivative form, and art as commodity, its maker’s right of droit-de-suite weakened in a post-Brexit market economy; concerns which Turner might well have to address in his role as Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts.
Yet it is as a re-writer of London that Turner is most effective, joining the crowd of post-Sinclair names cited above who are re-imagining the city, a cross between Urbex trespassers and sober archivists, equipped with proprioceptive sensitivities that can tune into both ancient resonances as well as stand witness to traumatic contemporary change. In Loom so-called ‘Internal Edgelands’ emerge, pockets of dark space inside the metropolitan area which the virus has nullified. For as the administrative centre and Canary Wharf are purged of tourists and commuters, once again the cluster of villages which were slowly fused together in the nineteenth and twentieth century as Greater London, postcodes from Barnes to Walthamstow, Hampstead to Gypsy Hill, start to look more and more vital as local life hubs. But Loom as its name implies, builds up surface patterns — line upon line — woven into Paisley arabesques, expressing the creeping horror of the haunted house idiom.
Michael Hampton has written extensively about the practice and theory of artists’ publishing. His Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book was published by Uniformbooks in 2015, to critical acclaim. Between 2009 and 2019 he wrote regularly for Art Monthly, and has contributed to many exhibition catalogues, and titles such as 3a.m., The Blue Notebook, Unofficial Britain, The Penguin Collector, The Swedenborg Review, Invert/Extant and most recently the urban horror anthology Denizen of the Dead.
- See also my comments on ‘Ficto-History‘.