Think of this as a window
By Bridget Penney.
Some graffiti and other interventions at Abney Park Chapel, Stoke Newington, February 2007 to March 2010.
Despite the stencilled ‘LADIES’ sign pointing the way I missed the accessible cubbyhole at the northeastern corner of the chapel so this bit of exploring was done online.
Maggie Jones took this fantastic picture of the graffiti inside on 19 September 2008. The most immediately striking feature is the eye in the pyramid, emitting radio waves, with the slogan ‘GOD/GOES/WIRELESS’ written underneath. Above it on the right is a quote from Paradise Lost ‘the mind is its own place and/in itself can make a heaven/of hell, and a hell of heaven/john milton/(1608-74).’ Scribbled all through the image, and probably not that visible unless peering close-up, are the words ‘ALL/SEEING/EYE’. While ‘GOD/GOES/WIRELESS’ seems of a piece with the eye in the pyramid, executed in the same confident black line, the ‘ALL/SEEING/EYE’ is much fainter and the words run at angles to each other, not to mention its distinctive capital Es like reversed threes which remind me of my grandmother’s handwriting.
Barry Fentiman, snapping seven months later in March/April 2009, concentrates on one section of the graffiti at a time. In his close-up of the Milton quote it’s possible to appreciate how neatly it’s written with a thin black pen (though lines do break in odd places, possibly to meet the challenge of the rough surface). The ‘A’ of ‘ALL/SEEING/EYE’ is just visible here – though on first noticing I took it for the remains of an Anarchy sign.
The classic view of the chapel is from the south; where two turrets balance the rise of the spire lining up with Isaac Watts’ statue, the site of Abney House and the gate onto Church Street. On the same visit Maggie took a picture through the southern gate of the porte-cochere into the chapel interior where spooky, beautifully executed lettering ‘watch your skin peel’ appears to float. Someone on Flickr has commented about how it’s not just watching your own skin peel, but the building’s. At first glance I assumed the photo had been ‘shopped’ and don’t think any more about it. It just didn’t seem likely some tagger had squeezed through the iron grilles to execute the lettering with such painstaking care. When Maggie shoots upward through the eastern gate to capture her own shadow and that of another photographer standing side by side outlined by brilliant September afternoon sunshine, in her ‘Flickr mini meet up’ the lettering is visible again but I prefer to notice that the corners of the vaulted brickwork are
stained vividly green where water has been leaking in.
It’s not until I find richardr’s photograph taken two months later in November 2008 that I discover that the spooky writing is the second line of a quatrain constituting an installation called ‘MOSSenger’ by Anna Garforth and Eleanor Stevens. Though their practice is inspired by guerrilla gardening I think permission must have been obtained for the work to be installed so publicly in the chapel. The text is by Stevens; Garforth cuts the letters out of moss and applies them to surfaces using a mixture of live yoghurt and sugar. This is from their manifesto MOSS 1: “It seemd as if writing with moss represents an unusual synthesis between advanced civilization and nature. It is a chance for us to speak as individuals and artists but also to be the spokesperson of organisms which have no voice in our world. We hope that not only words will be noticed, but also the moss itself, put to the forefront through it’s sculpting, fashioned into a form we can understand.”
The comments on Richardr’s post are largely positive about the MOSSenger installation although most concur that it doesn’t particularly ‘add anything’ to the chapel interior and they would have liked the photo just as much without it. For me to agree that Garforth and Stevens’ work doesn’t add to the chapel’s extraordinary ruined atmosphere would be to gainsay my initial, dismissive misconstruction of what the lettering was and how it came to be part of the image. Abney Park is an appropriate place to consider the relationship between advanced civilisation and nature. Formerly, as a garden cemetery, it exemplified their fundamental irreconcilability though a process of dynamic negotiation was constantly ongoing. As a nature reserve, protected by, and from, advanced civilisation, it is now the most alienated of places, surrounded by what it is not. This moss typography seems to link with a key part of Abney’s history; the alphabetically ordered and labeled arboretum planted round the cemetery’s perimeter which was, in effect, a living textbook of trees. Elsewhere in documentation of Garforth and Stevens’ work I have read that the intention is for the moss to colonise its host surface so the living text gradually extends and eventually obscures itself but it was evidently too dry on that part of the chapel wall for the moss to ‘take’. The remains of the last three letters of (wa)tch are just visible on the left hand side of the opening through into the main body of the chapel in Barry Fentiman’s photo of 14th March 2009.
At the back (north) of the chapel half a hexagon juts out from the main structure, forming a bay. Originally there would have been an arched door in either side, with a window in the middle, but both doorways have been crudely breezeblocked up and a large sheet of hardboard tacked in place to secure the window.
The painting of the boy within the western archway was in place by January 21st 2009 when Bevan Beast photographed the back of the chapel. It’s a half-length portrait or a self-portrait; the face is quite carefully drawn, young, possibly Turkish, thick dark hair, thick dark eyebrows, open-necked shirt. His eyes are clearly delineated, showing pupils and irises as distinct. He stares straight ahead at the remains of the lawn, the Indian bean tree which flowers so beautifully in summer and the start of the two former elm walks. It’s not stylised in any of the ways I might have expected, but it’s not naturalistic either. It looks like the work of someone who hasn’t done all that much painting but that’s not to diss it; the impression is undeniably powerful.
Barry Fentiman titles his picture of the boy, taken seven weeks later ‘Stained Concrete’ and posts, “this has a stained glass quality to it. It’s almost as though the local community of the night has begun to re-adorn this gorgeously gothic shell.” As remarked by Andrew Gough in his posting of 13th December 2009, the boy’s mouth is dead on one of the mortar joints. His eyes are just below another join which means the upper lids show white. Blotched blue and pink paint from earlier taggings form the base colourmap for his face and shirt. The pink makes him look like he has some kind of erupting skin condition while the blue round his mouth and chin create the impression of heavy stubble. His neck is outlined by a shirt collar
and his shoulders fill the width of the arch; where his arms would be is blocked off by the doorframe. Two black lines continue his torso down to just above ground level. The effect is something like a herm.
The doorway on the east side of the bay was a little harder to spot as nothing remains of its frame and the paint spilling across brick and breezeblock obscures the join. ‘Think of This as a Window’ writes Barry in his post of 14 March. ‘I don’t know what this means but it decorates a space that is now breezeblock and for that it must be applauded.’ ‘CHOI/DIVISION’ – the white line running down from a bulge makes me think of a rainwater downpipe then looking closer I wonder if it’s a skull on a stick – with three eyesockets. The black lettering is pleasingly punchy and whoever executed this laid down white paint first to get a clean background. She or he has only bothered to obliterate so much – why waste your paint? – so blue from a previous tagging ‘MIAC/M[ ]’ – remains visible. There’s a completely unknowable shape – tv screen? shopping trolley? animal? and something yellow, which looks good against blue.
‘THE DREAMY DECOY’ is painted in drippy white on the brickwork just above ground level below the boarded-up window on the middle panel though ‘DECOY’ spills over onto the wall next to the painting of the boy. The lettering dips (most deeply at the ‘M’) to nestle a winged, fluttering heart. Very bright colours. There are MySpaces for both bands (is this in itself a form of internet carbon dating?) but Choi’s looks totally defunct; photos, videos stripped out and a few plaintive comments. ‘THE DREAMY DECOY’ looks a bit more alive. There appears to be a link to some music which I don’t click on.
Above the winged heart is the sheet of hardboard and just visible among the plobby pasted or stenciled faces, scrawls, blue smudges, a yellow ‘A’, random red dots and what might possibly be a stick figure – is the writing I’ve seen later close-ups of by Barry Fentiman and Andrew Gough. Bevan Beast doesn’t mention it; he may have preferred to ignore it or simply not noticed. Compared to the bright new paintings it’s just a scribble disappearing into the weathered surface.
‘Do U feel/the fear/ – SATAN/ is coming/HERE’ is written in thickish red pen or possibly crayon under an inverted pentagram. Although partly occluded by other layers of scribble it doesn’t look like anyone has deliberately tried to obliterate it. Barry posts ‘I did indeed feel the fear. The chapel was non-denominational from the beginning. Is it post-religion now? There is a dread about this place. I could not stay long.’ Clicking from Barry’s close-up of this text to his photo of the Milton quote, I’m struck by a possible resemblance in the handwriting – the printed ‘the’s look similar even though a different writing instrument has been used. They’re probably the most famous lines in Paradise Lost, spoken by Satan, early in Book One, as he rises from the flaming lake where he’s been languishing since he was expelled from heaven and flies off to take the measure of his new domain.
Why would anyone write it here (and attribute it so painstakingly with Milton’s correct dates)? For that matter, why draw an eye in a pyramid with radio waves coming off it and place the magnificent slogan ‘GOD/GOES/WIRELESS’ underneath? I should have guessed that an internet search would reveal another band with a slightly time-lagged MySpace. ‘God goes wireless’ produced experimental electronica and cited Crowley and Orwell among their influences. stml’s photo of 8 February 2007 shows that they colonised the wall first; the Paradise Lost quote and ALL/SEEING/EYE were in place by August 2008. It’s tempting to speculate about what motivated these responses but I feel that might lead me to fit together pieces which don’t actually belong. Whoever wrote or drew these things knew why they were doing it at the time and their reasons, though it is hard to accept, are no business of mine.
At some point between March and December 2009 when Andrew Gough visited the chapel, the boy’s eyes were obliterated with red paint. It seems a strange and aggressive act, like a deliberate blinding. Gough posts about his visit to Abney Park on 13 December 2009 ‘no more than 30 yards from the chapel we came across a pigs head in the middle of the path’ and includes a picture of ‘me, holding the pigshead with a stick; drawing of man with “red eyes” in the background.’ This photo is taken on the far side of the lawn from the chapel near the entrance to one of the former elm walks. The north side of the chapel is visible in the background and the painting of the young man now featuring red bleeding eyes is very noticeable. Gough also observed the ‘Do U feel the fear’ inscription. ‘Not sure what to make of it all, but I can tell you that it felt pretty “heavy” and that was before discovering the pigs head and the peculiar graffiti.’ Like me, he missed the ‘LADIES’ which is a shame because I’m sure the Milton quote and ‘ALL-SEEING EYE’ would have given him more food for thought. He opened a discussion on his Arcadia forum in which considerable attention is paid to details of the painting and inscription before it spirals off in other directions.
The final Flickr picture was taken by h.curry on 6 March 2010 and is titled ‘Going to church’. Standing slightly northwest of the chapel, she includes the beautiful rose window and the roof of the bay – whether the latter is being destroyed or held together by ivy is hard to tell. A winter tide mark of green algae registers at least a foot up the wall. The boy with red eyes and ‘THE DREAMY DECOY’ feature prominently: stuck on the board and slightly outwith the main focus of the photo is a black and white poster of the Queen wearing some strangely pineapple-skin-textured hat. Except it comes out in conversation with Barry that this is another misconstruction; what I took for interstices on the fruit skin are actually eyes. It is stuck on the board right next to ‘Do U feel the fear’ – I don’t think, squinting at the photo, that it covers
Acknowledgments and my most grateful thanks to Maggie Jones, Barry Fentiman, richardr, Bevan Beast, Andrew Gough, stml and h.curry whose work is reproduced above. If they hadn’t taken these photographs and posted online, this text would never have been written.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 28th, 2012.