In spring 2015 the museum invited students at the Slade School of Fine Art to respond to the theme of City Now, City Future. The proposal of Canadian artist Richard Müller was selected. His video installation for the museum’s Sackler Hall, Twenty Bridges, presents an apocalyptic and at the same time playful vision of a future London consumed by the Thames. Submerged in the river, objects from London’s history mix with the debris of contemporary London life as the water reduces everything to flotsam.
We asked Richard some questions.
What drew you to this project?
The Museum of London really interested me because a lot of the objects in the collection are inherently quite beautiful but not necessarily designed as art objects. I was attracted by the idea of all this stuff, all this rubbish that has just accrued value because of time, and because of place.
Has your experience of living in London affected your work?
Both my parents are from here, so I grew up with them having a relationship with London. When they retired, they wanted to come back but they found London had changed quite a lot. This might sound tragic if it weren’t for the fact that London changes quite often. I’ve seen changes in the 24 months I’ve been here. I’m interested in how some things have changed and some things don’t.
What was your starting point?
When I was a kid, I had a book called The History of the Future that was filled with these vintage, archaic images of the future. Looking at some of these images of a proposed London, one that kept surfacing was the very harsh reality of an apocalyptic London where global warming had raised the Thames past its current banks and into the actual city.
Did you research underwater life?
I took a day down to Greenwich to become a one day mudlark. I didn’t put my head under the water – obviously – but I was combing along the riverbed looking for the detritus that exists there now. It’s a lot of Lucozade bottles. A strange amount of bones had washed up the day I was there.
Can you talk us through the process of putting the film together?
My first step was to create a list of objects that interested me and I thought would work well with the video. Some objects look much better as 3D models than as objects, and the inverse. I was also trying to create some kind of narrative: a narrative of detritus and flotsam. In a two-day photo frenzy, I was allowed to photograph the objects. It was amazing to move and work around these little objects that I wasn’t allowed to touch. Then I modelled the objects into 3D model files and orchestrated the models in a programme called ‘Blender’.
How many photos of each object did you take?
The modelling process will have more or less trouble depending on the geometric nature of the object. If an object is rectangular, it requires about six photographs, just to get each side. Obviously any more helps! Some of the more complex models, like the river god, required quite a lot. To really get the definition of the sculpture required almost a hundred photographs.
Did any objects stand out?
One of the objects that had a very strange charge to it was the mannequin of Queen Victoria. We have all seen mannequins in store fronts but there’s a detachment from it when you realise that it is Queen Victoria’s body – but not quite.
You’ve included some things of your own. Why?
I wanted objects from the streets of London today, as well as objects from myself, a person living in London. Objects like the fried chicken box, which I think says quite a lot about a specific moment in London’s history. And things like my boot, which is probably not particularly special. But in contrast to looking at the fashion and boot-wear of past Londoners, maybe my boot does have a bit of say as to the sartorial identity of London.
Tell us more about your boot.
I am really bad at buying new clothes. Even when I buy new clothes for myself, they are usually not new clothes for the world. This also comes from my mother who is a die-hard charity shop goer. When I was a kid she would take me to thrift stores and I would just die of boredom. But as I grew up I realised that the charity shop was an important place for me. When I went back to Canada to see my family last Christmas, my shoes had dilapidated into bits of leather with lace. We went to a thrift shop and I got a pair of old dusty leather boots. At first I was convinced that they were really hideous, but they were also 5 Canadian dollars. I took the boots home, and then proceeded to wear them for almost a year straight until I had destroyed the leather. And now the search for a new pair of shoes begins again.
How did you decide the order of the objects in the video?
I was looking for objects that spoke to one another: something maybe about violence that existed or exists in London, or ways people have eaten food in London.
What about making the river?
I was trying to create an underwater, marine environment and water-like motion. But not so much that it would make everybody seasick. That was a great fear of mine: that I would somehow make it into more of a tempest than a surging river.
Will there be fish?
There was a period of time, when I was imagining kelp and bubbles. But let’s be real, there’s probably not that many fish in the Thames these days!
Did the project change how you look at objects?
I think the search for trash – good trash – was derived from a great deal of wandering, which London is a great city for. I had to explore London in a new way: to look for recurring themes in London’s trash. I am a big advocate of fried chicken, so that one came naturally. Plus you see it everywhere. I live in a neighbourhood that has a lot of fried chicken shops, and the two types of trash you get from the shops are the boxes and the chicken bones, which become these weird fossils on the streets.
How does Twenty Bridges fit in with your work generally?
I am interested in how things can exist in two different places at once. The objects exist in the museum, but they are also given a new life by becoming digital 3D models, which allows me to manipulate them in a way that I could not in real life. You can make something your own by making it digital.
What do you hope our visitors will get out of Twenty Bridges?
I want to renew their interest in the objects that the museum holds but also in all of the things that exist within London. No piece of London is more or less interesting than any other. If you remove the structures that say that this object has more or less value, you can start to look at objects in a whole new way.
I’m excited to bring the things I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve had working for this video and working with the museum, to bring that back and into my practice, and expand it. Maybe without the museum, but also, because of the museum.
We forgot to ask Richard about the title of his video. You might have already guessed that it is inspired, and in fact uses lines from the poem The River’s Tale by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), published in 1911.
Richard Müller’s Twenty Bridges will be shown in the Museum of London’s Sackler Hall from 11 May to 14 June 2015. Most of the objects featuring in the video can be seen in our permanent galleries, but we have also brought out objects from our stores which you can see in Show Space.
The commission was made possible by funding from Arts Council England.