Danh Vo, Photographs of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962–1973, 2010 Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nick Ash
London’s Urban Forest; an Art of the Ongoing
By Guy Mannes-Abbott 23 May 2020
It’s the third Urban Tree Festival in London and I’ve been asked to write about what it means to celebrate and make art from a tree or trees in the South London Gallery’s world [for* the SLG; thank you! LINK]. I take the latter territory to have been tagged by William Blake, long-term resident of Lambeth’s Hercules Road, between the dark satanic mills of endlessly churning capital at Blackfriars Bridge and trees on Peckham Rye which hosted the angels of his creative resilience.
What is a tree, though? It’s an ontological question I’d like to prune into handy shape so that we can attend to the intangible qualities which enliven and expand more recognisably concrete ones. The tree as a rooted object is a marvel, of course, but it is so much more than that on multiple ecological, political, and cultural registers; smells and ‘looks’, rhizomatic roots and crowns, as well as an embedded commons. London is now formally classified as a continuous urban forest, which adds another dimension to its ambient realms, remembrances of things past and unlikely future hopes.
My first association is with Danh Vo’s landmark survey exhibition at the SLG in September 2019, and the related show at Marian Goodman Gallery. Common to both was the timber from a plantation of Black Walnut trees gifted to Vo by Craig McNamara, son of Robert the gung-ho Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War. When Vo acquired some of the latter’s effects to work with, Craig made an approach which grew into one of Vo’s many miraculous friendships. Art critical responses to the work lingered on the woody odours in both galleries, and I remember a tangy encounter with a room dressed in walnut to display a collection of ambiguous photographs of Vietnamese men and boys.
Mourid Barghouti (مريد البرغوثي) died in Amman on Sunday 14th February, and is survived by his and Radwa Ashour’s son Tamim, to whom I offer my love and heartfelt condolences.
Mourid made this series of humble recordings between June and September 2020, reading a range of his poems in their own language. I was struck by each of them as they appeared, appreciating them for what they are, recognising many but more than that recognising the remarkable man, poet and memoirist in the voice and many gestures that were so very Mourid.
“Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself … a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research.”
Laleh Khalili announces the raison d’être of her new book, as well as its primary call on our attention, in the second sentence; ‘Ninety per cent of the world’s goods travel by ship’.  Within this overwhelming figure, 70 per cent of global cargo by value is carried by container ships, and 60 per cent of oil trade travels by sea. The resulting system of marine transportation is not, she continues, ‘an enabling adjunct of trade but is central to the very fabric of global capitalism’ (p 3). Sinews of War and Trade traces the histories of a fast-developing present, now centred on China as the ‘factory of the world’ and the Arabian peninsula as the infrastructural heart of flows through post-Independence era ports, with ‘Dubai’s Jabal Ali foremost among them’ (p 2).
Late summer 2019 -a plague and a bit ago- I conducted a written exchange with McKenzie Wark around Capital is Dead which was published in TANK magazine’s Autumn Issue. It was a privilege to do and peculiarly intimate as well as inherently exploratory if not aleatory. Wark’s work has a promiscuousness which I wanted to engage across its liberating range, and more clearly establish what that is. I had not been the interviewer rather than interviewee for a decade and it happened to take place during Wark’s transitioning; she later remarked upon the strangeness and no doubt unwelcome intrusiveness of this first interview…
TANK is a wonder for having the capacity for a piece like this and the process produced some interesting digressions, which distracted from the main conversatonal thrusts and so we nipped them out. I was seeking dissolution -if not end- points of certain intellectual trails (some of which Wark set out on in her General Intellects series, which emerged from her teaching practice), towards the muddying world of rivers and related planetary concerns and work of my own through this period. I’m always interested in where lines of thought and allegiance spill over or expire…
(UPDATE; Next day, I am very unsure if this works; it’s intended to share these close ups/visual notes as lightly as possible. I may have failed! If so, please scroll down to the two ID mag links, which are excellent. I may delete this virtually private reflection on further reflection, and after all…)
Nope, not going to do that. That thing of taking up public space out there with nice-white-guy thoughts on Basquiat. I’ve had my (notional) chances after all! When Boom for Real came to London’s Barbican in 2017, after very few actual opportunities to write (the UK could not distinguish him/his work from the celebrity-gloss-at-a-distance around him/it), I realised it was too late. Definitely, definitively; I should not be writing about him or it, positively or negatively. No more white intros to be essayed. Tricky, but I’m not being nice about being a nice-white-guy, it’s just done (which ought to preclude publicly saying so nice-whitely at one’s next book event/or panel, no?).
“Azoulay has produced a unique handbook for the 2020s that details how, why, when and where to say no in the affirmative. Her greatest achievement is that, against the foreshortened horizons of a despoiling barbarism, she makes all our tomorrows thinkable.“
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism is almost double the size of my copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism and about half the size, in turn, of Karl Marx’s first volume of Capital. There are many nuanced differences across such a crudely mapped zone but the quality that all three share is a burning desire to change, to radically redistribute the world as it is, or appears to be. Azoulay’s six-hundred-page-long Potential History offers a liveable commonworld through exacting reparations and ends with a very short but insistent affirmation: ‘The potential is there’. 
Capital is Dead is an urgently rewarding read, as well as a summation of sorts for the author and much of her work in this century. This clip from the published text should alert you to the unorthodoxies it engages and the energy applied too!
EXCELLENT ESSEX In praise of England’s most misunderstood county by Gillian Darley
Old Street Publishing, London. 17 Sept 2019
Gillian Darley caught my attention some years ago with her positivity towards that “most overlooked and undersold of counties”; Essex, which she presented without the usual preface of undermining caveats. “Surprisingly, Essex is rather self-effacing”, Darley wrote, its “delight based on anomaly and paradox.” The part of Essex I have come to know intimately; the River Roding, its valley and catchment, which runs through the north west flanks of an exceptionally rich cultural landscape into London’s most vital parts, exemplifies these qualities. Darley’s refreshing words appeared in her review of an updated Pevsner guide in the London Review of Books (2007) which was, it turns out, also the trigger for Excellent Essex itself.