I have never before been moved to write about an exhibition – let alone one devoted to contemporary art – but the ‘Estuary’ exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands is such a wonderful thing that this is the best way I can encourage you to go short of knocking on your door, getting you in some kind of headlock and dragging you there myself.
The Thames Estuary is a strangely evocative place. Marshy, misty, strewn with perilous sandbanks and at least one highly volatile cache of submerged explosives, it’s lined with refineries, industrial estates and busy commercial ports. Conventionally beautiful it is not, yet the marshlands and choppy brine of the gateway to the North Sea have inspired artistes as diverse as Charles Dickens and Dr Feelgood to extraordinary creative heights.
‘Estuary’ celebrates all of this in a series of exhibits on the ground floor of one of London’s best museums. It’s billed as a contemporary art exhibition but don’t let that put you off – the region itself is the star of this skilfully curated combination of film, photography and art.
I loved William Raban’s Thames Film 1984-86, a twenty minute voyage from Westminster as far as the open sea (one minor pedantic point is that the exhibition takes in the Thames as well as the estuary, but, you know, hey-ho) loosely based on the naturalist and travel writer Thomas Pennant’s 1787 journey from London to Dover. Raban also mixes in footage from Port of London Authority documentary films of the forties and fifties, when London was an enormous global shipping hub, with shots from the same angle showing how far things had decayed by the eighties. But that’s not to say it’s at all downbeat; in fact it’s a wonderful, uplifting film.
Another highlight for me was Jock McFadyen’s sparse, atmospheric paintings Purfleet From Dracula’s Garden and Dagenham, works that capture the immense, faintly unreal sense of space and light you find in the Thames Estuary, where the sea and the sky can seem almost one entity.
Away from the main body of the exhibition, on the third floor, is a constantly evolving series of mini-films by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen about life in the estuary today. With the Thames Gateway project and the proposed madness of the pontoon airport these are uncertain times for the estuary as we know it, and this is reflected in Larsen’s pacey yet elegiac selection: the coming changes make the contributions of the people of the estuary extra poignant. Apprentice watermen sit in a pub discussing their marriage prospects; in the wheelhouse of the Gravesend – Tilbury ferry two ferrymen discuss the giant wind turbines rising over the latter. “Ugly, ain’t they?” “Well apparently they provide 70% of the port’s electricity.” “…yeah, but ain’t they a bloody eyesore all the same?”. A deckhand in a fluorescent jacket throws food to seagulls while the ferry’s one passenger wheels his bike up the gangplank – like the exhibition itself Larsen makes the everyday exceptional and the mundane magnificent.
By far my favourite part of ‘Estuary’ is John Smith’s looped 18-minute Horizon (Five Pounds A Belgian). It’s a video installation with neither beginning nor end in which Smith points his video camera at the horizon from the coast at Margate over three months and builds a montage of shifting seas from deepest blue to chilliest quicksilver beneath still, dramatic skies. Occasionally we see passing ships, boats, dog walkers and cyclists, all to a soundtrack of the crashing waves. The picture changes with each crash, making each wave like the turning of a page – the overall effect is utterly mesmerising: I could have sat there for hours.
Estuary runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 27 October. It’s free.
You can, ahem, find out about my estuary adventures in the Principality of Sealand in this here book here.