Half-life has been called an animal many times, but never a political one. So it was a surprise to be dragged to WAR Gallery, an unashamedly political space in Lee Green, for the first exhibition on this, our third trail of art galleries and nearby watering holes.
The gallery sells gifts with an anti-war message: Make Stuff Dead army mugs and PTSD Action Man, alongside occasional exhibitions. It’s also one of those rare places where you can buy a white poppy, the peace-promoting alternative to the British Legion’s red poppy. I still buy both, the latter out of respect for people like my old dad, who helped save us from a future filled with schnitzel and fermented cabbage.
‘I like schnitzel,’ said Half-life. ‘But I won’t wear a red poppy, on principle.’
Having spent some formative years in Northern Ireland, Half-life isn’t about to honour the perpetrators of Bloody Sunday.
‘No way,’ he said over a pre-gallery pint at the Old Tiger’s Head, across the road from WAR. ‘I fucking hate U2.’
We sat in the ‘secret garden’, a surprising space out the back of the boozer with a barbeque and dart board under the awnings.
‘You know the difference between God and Bono?’ continued Half-life.
‘No,’ I sighed.
‘God doesn’t think he’s Bono,’ he chortled. ‘Anyway, red’s not my colour. Those poppies bring out the blood in my eyes. Make me look like some kind of drug-crazed soak.’
The Tiger’s Head has another new manager, Kyla, who has brought in more cask ale and emptied the barrel in the garden that served as a final resting home for thousands of cigarette butts.
‘I used to love that barrel,’ said Half-life, sadly. ‘It was a work of art. I used to tell newbies I’d get them a pint if they correctly guessed how many butts were in there. When they got it wrong I’d make them get me a Moretti. Anyway, let’s go to WAR.’
Across the road, we caught the last day of Italian street artists Hogre and double whY’s show, Moral Panic. You may have seen some of their subvertising that has appeared around South London, from Brixton to Greenwich, like their ‘Neighbourhood Snitch’ posters, looking legit at bus stops and causing people to think about stuff when all they wanted was a ride to Poundland.
Half-life liked their Jubilee Line piece, though mostly because it was described as ‘Black ink on stolen paper’.
Their work is provocative and they are allegedly facing blasphemy charges in Italy over a piece that depicts Jesus becoming aroused near a small, kneeling, boy. It’s a shame it’s taken the Roman Catholic Church so long to find the juxtaposition of hard-ons and children offensive but at last they appear to have had a Damascene conversion.
Stimulated, though not by the Lamb of God’s empurplement, we headed onward.
Unfortunately the Artful Pelican on Lee Road was closed. Shame. It’s an admirable non-profit gallery whose sales benefit the homeless, indeed much of the art is produced by the homeless. Half-life had hoped to pick up some Donald Trump toilet paper there.
It was a bit of a hike to the next place, the White Box in Blackheath. Half-life was so distressed by passing three pubs en route that he marched past the gallery and straight into the Hare & Billet.
There, he asked for various members of staff only to find they had all moved on since his last visit.
‘There’s no chance of a lock-in now, pal,’ he moaned. Which was just as well, as it was only 2pm.
We popped into the White Box, a gallery about the size of a walk-in wardrobe, but with a surprising number of pieces by Ti Parks, whose collage and photographic work represented Australia at the Paris Biennale and who lived nearby until his recent passing.
‘I know his step-daughter,’ said Half-life. ‘She’s alright but strangely immune to my charms. I dunno, maybe she’s deaf.’
Down Blackheath Hill we went, into Deptford for a series of galleries, beginning with Peter von Kant on Tanners Hill. Half-life again went straight past the gallery, this time into WH Wellbeloved, a butcher’s that’s been there since 1829, to demand a Scotch egg.
The gallery housed Jonny Nieshe’s first solo UK show, Cracked Actor, inspired somewhat by the Bowie song of the same name and the artwork from Aladdin Sane, the album on which it appears. There is something glam rock in the sheen of Nieshe’s acrylic mirrors, contrasting starkly with the 17th century walls of the gallery (see main image).
‘I loved that album,’ Half-life announced, through a mouthful of pork sausage and egg. ‘Once, in a lesson, our English teacher let us read the lyrics of our favourite song. I chose Bowie’s Time, just so I could say, “Falls wanking to the floor” out loud in class,’ he announced out loud in the otherwise silent gallery.
Refreshment was found nearby at the Royal Standard, a local’s boozer that prides itself on its local beer: Kernel, Brick, Villages, Hop Stuff, Canopy. Half-life fitted right in, and he high-fived half-a-dozen new friends as we left for our next appointment, at the MMX photographic gallery on New Cross Road.
We caught a really quite striking display by Michel Cala: Silesia 1975-1985. The extraordinary black and white images featured industrial towns in the volatile Polish region, homes cheek-by-jowl with eerie, pristine slag heaps.
‘It looks like another planet,’ gasped Half-life, mesmerised. ‘Like Wales.’
I was so taken with it, I returned at the weekend with Lady South who bought a print of the bleak, barren landscape as it reminded her of our first date.
Happily, we were almost next door to the Royal Albert, a beautiful renovated Antic pub with fine ale and bar billiards. As elegant as the pub is though, there were no high-fives for us as we left, which Half-life found quite hurtful.
Opposite the railway arches of Resolution Way is Enclave an ‘experimental artist-run infrastructure’ which houses small galleries, studios, workshops – almost anything creative. On our visit, the Castor gallery was open, featuring work by Derek Mainella, a London-based Canadian artist, whose show It’s the end of the world as we know and I feel fine, describes our detachment from reality, albeit obtusely. Half-life’s favourite was ‘Untitled (smoking)’.
‘There’s nothing like the taste of tobacco on a woman’s lips,’ he said, almost tenderly. ‘Unless it’s a cigar. Then it’s shitting horrible.’
In the arches opposite lie Gin & Beer, Buster Mantis and Villages taproom, the latter of which was opening just as we left Castor, to fill us full of Rodeo, among the finest pale ales on offer at present.
I had to return the following Friday for the opening of two more shows and to complete the Arts Hole trail, on Creekside. But if the exhibitions align, you can do them all in one day.
Also part of UrbanPhotoFest, A.P.T. (Art in Perpetuity Trust) put on Charting the Invisible, a collective show from members of the Urban Photographers’ Association. But the big draw for me was at Art Hub, which was showing The Yellow Star Houses of Budapest, an astonishing subject, captured by Nigel Swann.
The apartment blocks of Budapest Jews were obliged to display yellow stars during 1944, as were all Jews over the age of six. The stars are no longer there, of course, but most of the buildings are. There were few contemporaneous photos, as Jews were not allowed cameras (or radios or bikes) at the time. The level of sheer spite still shocks.
That they are just pictures of ordinary buildings adds to the drama, along with the soft pastel colours of many of the walls. They are simply beautiful urban photos with the unspoken resonance of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. The significance of the image is entirely absent from the spectacle.
It’s little wonder I needed to get to a pub. Luckily the Birds Nest was at hand, a boozer that’s about as anti-fascist as you can get. It was good to be reminded that people are still angry about those fuckers, and sad to think there are still people who support their worldview. It felt better to take it all in with a lovely big pint and some loud music, in as close to a cunt-free zone as can be achieved. Then Half-life walked in.
‘Makes you think, doesn’t it?’ he said, having caught the exhibition.
I agreed. It made me think that while we have been sullied by unjustifiable wars and conquests, as have the British Legion by taking the coin of arms manufacturers, we must remain eternally grateful to those who stood up to Hitler. Without their sacrifice you can be sure we would not be able to exchange hilarious pictures of ourselves with bunny ears today, a simple reminder that freedom has not been wasted on trifles.
‘Made me think of Budapest Bella,’ mused Half-life. ‘Gave me a tug in a phone box in New Malden once. She was a chunky lass, but what a goulash.’
‘I was thinking of the millions who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and those who laid down their lives for our liberty,’ I told him.
‘Right on, pal. I’m with you there. They get my two minutes of respectful silence every year, without fail. 11am on the eleventh of the eleventh.’
That is almost certainly true. He never gets up before one.
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