“The Work By Adriaan Van Heerden Illuminates Our Contemporary Wasteland With Cold & Understated Ferocity” Says Oxford Don & Eminent Irish Poet Bernard O’donoghue
The Irish poet Bernard O’Donoghue, lecturer in medieval literature and modern poetry at Oxford University and biographer of Seamus Heaney, says that Adriaan van Heerden’s new photographic collection Unreal Cityilluminates our contemporary wasteland with cold and understated ferocity through the prism of T.S. Eliot’s great masterpiece, The Waste Land.
Eliot wrote The Waste Landin the immediate aftermath of the Great War, with civilization apparently in ruins. As we are approaching the centenary of the first publication of this monumental literary achievement, van Heerden suggests that one does not have to look far for evidence of our current wasteland. A decade of austerity has resulted in 130,000 unnecessary deaths and 320,000 homeless people living on our streets, as wealth inequality keeps growing and property becomes more and more unaffordable, especially in London. Property development has brought uneven benefits, with tens of thousands of poorer families displaced and struggling to cope as a result of welfare cuts.
Van Heerden’s interpretation of The Waste Landin bleak but beautiful photographs shows how wealth inequality, homelessness, the waste of young lives due to crime, spiritual vacuity, political and moral failure in our contemporary society are prefigured in Eliot’s great poem. Brexit has lifted the lid on these horrors and van Heerden’s Unreal Cityforces us to face up to them and challenges us to do something radical to solve them, by setting up a conversation between photographic imagery and poetic text in a way that has never been done before.
In Eliot’s poem London is the Unreal City, the background against which many of the characters have their entrances and exits. Van Heerden takes us into the heart of darkness of contemporary London, forcing us to experience the harsh everyday realities of its most vulnerable inhabitants.
O’Donoghue, who wrote an essay for Unreal City, says: “When Bertrand Russell read these lines in the final section of the poem –
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
he remembered that he once told Eliot of a nightmare in which he had a vision of London as an unreal city, its inhabitants like hallucinations, its bridges collapsing, its buildings passing into a mist. In some senses of course, as Adriaan van Heerden’s photographs richly illustrate, London is all too real, in its inequalities, materialism and the failure of its inhabitants to make meaningful contact with each other. Elsewhere Eliot said “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality”; van Heerden insists that we must acknowledge the intolerable discomforts and harshness of city reality which are not hallucinatory.”
According to O’Donoghue, van Heerden shows that we now live in the future of Eliot’s Waste Land, and that much of what is traumatic in our world is anticipated or described with great urgency in this prophetic document of nearly a century ago. Van Heerden’s pictures show how it is literally true, but more importantly they show the ways in which it is spiritually and figuratively true. For example, it would be easy to illustrate from the modern nightmare city literal representations of some of the most familiar lines of Eliot’s poem, such as the Dantesque passage from which he takes his title:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many. (lines 60-63)
This might well have been illustrated by trudging, despondent lines of people, like in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But van Heerden’s chosen picture is much more imaginative: a street of seedy shopfronts with a single dark figure walking past.
Similarly, for line 17, “In the mountains, there you feel free” there is a picture of a tapering high-rise block of flats, an ironic image of unfree, prosaic aspiration: a subject which is returned to for line 343 of the poem: “There is not even solitude in the mountains.”
Many of these pictures illustrate the familiar modern paradox, noted by Elias Canetti and others: being lonely amid crowds.
This kind of creative mismatching is the hallmark of van Heerden’s style; the illustrations of other familiar lines from the poem manifest the same adjustments from the physically real to the abstract and vice versa. “A heap of broken images” (line 22) might invite an image of detritus; but van Heerden’s is a beautiful reflection of towers and clouds in the glass panes of the Gherkin.
His picture for “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” (line 30) shows furniture discarded in a leaf-strewn walkway: an unlikely but evocative symbol of transience. We are reminded of Dr Johnson’s critical statement, admired by Eliot, about the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets: that by them “heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Johnson did not like the habit; but it describes very well Eliot’s own practice and van Heerden’s response to it.
Van Heerden follows Eliot into the city’s real, named places, often its historic churches: Saint Mary Woolnoth, Magnus Martyr, All Hallows-by-the-Tower, St Pancras Old Church. The churches are in keeping with one of his recurrent themes: the failure of religion to fulfil a spiritual or socially healing role – in Eliot’s terms, “the dead tree gives no shelter.” There are other real places too: King William Street, the Lloyds Building, Carnaby Street, Madame Tussaud’s, Canary Wharf, the Blavatnik Building – linking to another primary theme in the book: the inequalities and brutalities of a materialist, mercenary society. Most urgently real are the bus-stop where Stephen Lawrence was mortally wounded, and the burnt Grenfell Tower.
Van Heerden describes his work with Eliot’s poem as “a conversation”; but progressively as you work through the pictures, you see that it is close to the contradictory essence of Eliot’s great poem. His project is a decidedly political one, motivated by outrage at injustice and inequality. Generally, Eliot is seen as apolitical – Old Possum who keeps out of sight – or even reactionary. But it is remarkable how well the salient lines of The Waste Landlend themselves to radical perspectives.
Great art, it has often been said, must not be depressing; we must not despair in the face of the futility and anarchy of our world. It has also been said that good art is always political; that is certainly true of van Heerden’s response to The Waste Land. The injustice, violence and materialism of the unreal city are squarely faced; but the city represented here is also recognisably real. Coleridge said of Charles Lamb that to him no sound was “dissonant that tells of life.” Eliot’s view of the world has sometimes been said to be disdainful or supercilious. Van Heerden shows that it also has within it a humanity to which these pictures give vivid, if harsh, reality.
Unreal Citywill be launched at Bonhams in London (the international fine art auction house) on Monday 2 December, 6-8 pm. The event will include a small exhibition of pictures from the collection, a drinks reception and a short speech by Bernard O’Donoghue. The event is sponsored by Denbies Wine Estate and supported by London South Bank University.
To attend this exciting event, please RSVP to Matthew Haley: +44 (0) 20 7393 3817 or email [email protected]. Places are strictly limited so early reservation is advised.
Julian Roup, [email protected], 07970 563958