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Focal Point Gallery
17 May to 3 July 2010
With the context of Focal Point Gallery in mind, the new project ‘New Wooabbeleri’ becomes a direct analysis of how the local conurbation of Thamesmead received its name, and by implication, how large developments sometimes rely on chance and spurious encounters, as much as clearly defined parameters and plans. Whipps became interested in the history of Thamesmead after investigating its uncertain origins: known in its early days as ‘The Woolwich-Erith Riverside Project’, it needed a clearly identifiable moniker, so a ‘name the new town' competition was launched
in November 1966. In all, there were 565 entries and ‘Thamesmead' was finally chosen in March 1967.
Although the word ‘Thames’ featured in fifty-three of the competition’s suggestions, not all entries adhered to the recommended guidelines. Some of the more eccentric proposals included ‘Bamboo Estate’, ‘Blumguston’ and ‘New Wooabbeleri’.
Fascinated by this fact, Whipps scoured the Essex County Records Office for documentation on the history of the development, and photographed iconic buildings in the county. The resulting exhibition consists of five photographs of post-war developments, eighteen aerial photographs of the Thames, together with appropriated and altered drawings of the river, which were originally made in 1957. These drawings, which initially presented ambitious strategies to completely redevelop the north and south bank of the river, have been scrambled by the artist to form abstract patterns. Subsequently placed in archival vitrine cabinets, they make use of red lines to represent planned ‘activities’ and blue lines to represent ‘timescales’.
A third drawing takes as its source the development plans for Basildon New Town. These exploded blueprints, which are redolent of star maps or constellations, perform much the same role as the rejected name ‘New Wooabbleri’; they become fictitious (like failed or incomplete developments along the river), and enact the same weird function as a proposed place-name-cum-exhibition-title without origin (how can there be a ‘New Wooabbleri’ when there was no ‘original’ town of ‘Wooabbleri’ to begin with?). History and authenticity are put into doubt, yet simultaneously backed up by ‘straight’ photographic evidence.
One could say that if Whipps increasingly aims to promote doubt and throw the truth of the photographic medium into question – most recently, his practice has combined text and image around specific places, together with the portrayal of obscure historical facts and documentary fictions – then his work has developed from a directly politicised form of the medium, towards ideas that connect to Robert Smithson’s concepts of site/non-site, and a
form of mapping that takes place in work by artists as diverse
as Richard Long and Cornelia Parker. Yet, from another perspective, this work is also a direct continuation of the values Whipps examined when working with cut-up excerpts from Margaret Thatcher’s speeches as both stable and unstable documents during the aforementioned exhibition EASTinternational last summer.
Whipps has previously been known for concentrating on a similar type of political subject matter. In ‘Ming Jue. Photographs of Longbridge and Nanjing’ (2008), for example, he showed images that resulted from his visit to the newly closed South Birmingham car plant (he was famously the first photographer allowed in to see the vacated Longbridge) and his subsequent documentation of the factory’s move to China. While in ‘The Scenery is Very Wonderful. The Weather is Good’, Whipps walked the boundary of Blaenau Ffestiniog; a town surrounded by Snowdonia National Park. With the park’s location being determined by central government in 1951, Blaenau was deemed unworthy of being included, due
to its industrial nature. It subsequently fell into decline,
and still remains one of the most deprived towns in North Wales. By presenting original photographic works with texts and information from government archives, Whipps explored the boundaries of what isn’t ‘officially’ beautiful, and questioned the manufacture and myth of ‘natural beauty’ in landscape, revealing the detrimental social and economic effects that decisions of this kind have on small towns.
If the subject of boundaries is a constant theme in Whipps’ work, then this new project, which comes at the end of the artist’s three-month participation in Focal Point Gallery’s 2009/2010 residency programme, aims to analyse conditions in South Essex and the boundaries of the similar government determined area called The Thames Gateway; a site which remains the largest geographical location designated for regeneration in Europe. The project aims to address how sometimes random and indiscriminate historical facts can affect the imagination of local communities, and translate ideas into uncertainty.
Rather than having melancholy implications for our culture, Whipps’ project seems to be strangely optimistic; it suggests that, if certain plans are always open to interpretation, then perhaps it’s responsible for each of us to try and take control of how our environment is shaped, and be actively involved in injecting our surroundings with meaning and potential for the future.