At the Serpentine and the Aylesbury Estate

Gazelle Mba

Photo © Laura Fudge

Steve McQueen’s Grenfell, on show at the Serpentine last month, emerged from the filmmaker’s desire to stop ‘us’ – whoever ‘we’ are – from forgetting about the deadly fire which claimed 72 lives in the summer of 2017. McQueen filmed the ravaged building in the winter of that year, before it was covered up, bringing the viewer up close and personal with the remains. The work tries to inscribe the fire into public memory. But in doing so it casts the building as a mute, elevated symbol, rather than engaging with its fraught social and political meaning in the present.

I have to admit that I had low expectations for McQueen’s film, though I admire most of his previous work. I couldn’t imagine how it could avoid underscoring the social and cultural separation of the artist from his subject, though I hoped to be proved wrong. The Serpentine is barely a mile from Grenfell Tower, though in another sense it’s a million miles away. I wasn’t surprised to find myself among an audience of mainly white, middle-class, older people. Kensington Garden is full of memorials to dead white kings and queens. The Grenfell exhibition brought into their midst a memorial to those who exist on the outer extremities of national regard, though only temporarily.

The film opens with the skyline just outside London. The viewer is granted a godlike perspective, detached from the slow-moving events on the ground. There is the sound of ambulances and helicopters although we cannot see them. The camera veers from left to right as it moves closer to its target, the burned tower. Light catches the blackened building which appears before us like a sad lump of coal. Suddenly it is quiet. We see bin bags, broken windows, a man in a white hazmat suit doing grisly work. Every aspect of the tower’s laceration is brought into view. There is no privacy, no hiding, no looking away.

But looking on its own cannot spur the action required to make such disasters not just impossible but unthinkable. McQueen says his film is a work of memory, because official accounts and records are open to distortion and forgetting. But the work only nods, in an accompanying booklet, towards the people who lost their lives, their homes and their loved ones in the fire. The film is a study of the victims’ ghosts, not of the conflicts and painful irresolution that have followed their deaths.

The axis of memory and forgetting on which the film rests, it seems to me, is too simple, too clean. Pain is not an abstraction; loss is not an idea. A work of art that wades into politics like this should resist politeness, not allow itself to be enfolded into institutional structures: it should want to draw blood. To memorialise a catastrophic event as McQueen has done is to suggest that it can be designated as past. A stronger work would have stressed the fire’s effects in the present. It’s easy to say ‘never again’; a harsher truth is that something like this will happen again because nothing has been done to change the circumstances that led to it the first time.

A concurrent exhibition in a flat in South London, Fight4Aylesbury, had none of the Grenfell film’s funding or prestige. McQueen’s film is dedicated to the dead and the bereaved but the people behind Fight4Aylesbury are the bereaved. If McQueen’s Grenfell distances the viewer from the mess we are in, Fight4Aylesbury puts the visitor in the middle of it. The question of memory v. forgetfulness does not factor here.

The Aylesbury estate in Walworth was built between 1963 and 1977 and has since been left to rot. It is now being regenerated or socially cleansed, whichever word you prefer. Described in the Times as ‘one of the most notorious estates in the United Kingdom’, it may seem an unlikely venue for an exhibition. Going in you felt as if you were visiting someone’s home, because you were. Each room in Aysen Dennis’s flat documented a different struggle in the history of the estate. You could move through them however you wanted. The cumulative effect was to lay bare the confrontation between the decay foisted on the estate and the vitality and creativity of the residents’ demand to be afforded the dignity of a roof over their heads.

I began in the living-room, which followed the occupation of Chartridge House, an empty block on the estate, on 31 January 2015. There were anti-gentrification posters on the walls; the TV played a series of videos of the March for Homes in 2015 and other actions. I went into the kitchen, which was like a normal kitchen; I think someone was even making tea. There were folders relating to the ‘incredibly raw deal’ offered to leaseholders who had bought their flats under the right to buy or on the open market. The demolition of the Aylesbury estate means they will be dispossessed of their homes and given an insulting buyback offer from the council that ‘wouldn’t buy you a broom cupboard in Southwark’.

On other walls were the texts of tenants’ complaints, detailing the managed decline of the building: ‘there are leaks all the time/the heating goes off in winter, the hot water stops working … if you are lucky they fix the problem, for now./You’re left with a massive water stain on the ceiling./You’re so tired.’ You only need a work of art to remind you of all this if your life is completely separate from it. You wouldn’t forget a loved one who died because their flat was freezing and they had no hot water. The dispossession experienced by the residents of the Aylesbury estate and people like them is not in the past, it is their present and quite possibly their future.

I live about twenty minutes on foot from the Aylesbury estate. Before sitting down to write this, I went for a walk around its perimeter. I took in the rows of satellite dishes protruding from the high concrete walls; a man walking down a staircase with two children on their way to school; the fading colours of once brightly painted playgrounds; a mural with children’s handprints. If you want to know about the housing crisis and its deadly consequences you don’t need to go to the Serpentine Gallery: just walk around your local area or talk to your neighbours.