In Whitechapel Gallery at present there is a striking multimedia installation. Created by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, it uses the biblical story of Jacob's Ladder to address mind, memory, and meaning in our postmodern world. Indeed, it is is appropriately sited in the former Whitechapel Library, a significant 'crucible of British Modernism'. It explores what Michel Foucault called our human 'archaeology of knowledge': within which we live, move, shape and are shaped, whether we like it or not. Wandering through London, as I was on a brief transit visit, I had found myself wandering through features of my own life's memory and meaning and that of our wider world. Attia's work spoke powerfully of ways to engage fruitfully, not least through his concept of 'repair'.
Attia's Whitechapel installation includes a towering floor to floor structure of books. On the one hand, these explore subjects such as history, architecture and the arts, and, on the other hand, science, physics and astronomy. These are linked by philosophy. At the centre however is a cabinet of curiosities, containing particularly rare artefacts, books and scientific measuring instruments. Above this, a beam of light shines up into a mirrored ceiling, creating an infinity reflection which evokes Jacob's vision of angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven. Is this perhaps a sign of possible transcendence, within and beyond the 'archaeology of knowledge' in which we find ourselves?
My own peregrinations through London that day had brought me face to face with my own 'archaeology of knowledge': memories of my own past and understanding of London life in conjunction with significant features of change and contemporary struggle. A powerful symbol of this is the transformation of the Kings Cross-St Pancras precinct. For decades, Kings Cross was a seedy, run-down station area: its neglect a potent expression of southern disdain for the north to which it is the rail gateway (not for insular Londoners the emotional pull I still feel when station announcements call the heart to Darlington, Durham, Newcastle, Berwick and Edinburgh). Today Kings Cross is a very different place: an eyesore increasingly transfigured by the need for better presentation in the face of today' wider visitors pouring out around the Eurostar terminal at next-door St Pancras. Yet traces of Kings Cross' past still feature, not last in its architectural witness to a past, yet still partly living, industrial age and assumptions. Similarly, and even more strikingly, London's East End today contains a fresh kaleidoscopic configuration of past, present and future hope. Memory stirs at the traces of old connection, including the achievements of the original architects of 'people's palaces' like the Whitechapel Gallery and Toynbee Hall. Yet so much is reshaped, like the gruesome records of historic East End poverty and violence. It is sobering to eat at lunchtime in one of the oldest of London pubs, so much older than modern Australia, and to be reminded of one of the Ripper's first murders behind the building. Now however the Ripper tourist industry seems like a hideously sensationalised distraction from contemporary poverty and violence. A more brutal disjunction today is the block of shining new apartments, with gym, pool and state-of-the-art security, directly opposite Toynbee Hall, which still struggles to work, in new ways, for Whitechapel and Spitalfields' poor, now hugely multicultural and multif
A more life-giving expression of our often tragic memory and re-creativity of mind and meaning is Aftab Ali Park, close by to Whitechapel gallery across the road. It is a moving witness to the layers of the 'archaeology of knowledge' in any significant place or life. For the park was formerly known as St Mary's Park and is the site of the original 14th century chapel, form which the area of Whitechapel took its name. Destroyed in the Blitz in 1940, graves and signs of the old church's floor plan still speak, to those who have ears and eyes, of the interlocking levels of London's life, suffering, endurance and hope. Unlike many London parks and monuments, this is however not now dedicated to one of history's 'victors' but to one of the fallen. For the park was renamed Aftab Ali in 1995, in memory of a 25 year old Bangledeshi clothing worker who was murdered on 4 May 1978 by three teenage boys as he came home from work. Among other items in the park, the entry arch is thus a memorial to all victims of racist attacks. Incorporating a complex Bengali-style pattern, it seeks to show the way to the more creative merging of different cultures in east London.
Aftab Ali park, like other manifestations of creative re-membering, is an embodiment of what I understand to be Kader Attia's concept of 'repair'. For Attia sees repair as the underlying principle of development and evolution, in both nature and culture. This moves us beyond the brutalities of pre-modernity and modernism, and the atomisation of postmodernism. As Attia puts it: 'the biggest illusion of the Human Mind is probably the one on which Man has built himself: the idea that he invents something, when all he does is repair.' In earlier works, having lived in Algeria, the Parisian suburbs, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Venezuela, Attia has used this concept as a tool of mind, memory and meaning to seek peace and reconciliation: juxtaposing, for example, images of wounded first world war soldiers with appropriated African masks, suggesting a connection between physical healing and cultural reconstruction, both of which are in processes of repair. We too can do our part, in Whitechapel or wherever we seek and find home.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.