Isolation | Hugo Dalton
Wednesday 22 April 2020
It is only a short walk away but my studio lies silent. Despite the proximity it is a forbidden territory: I am in isolation as my neighbour in the flat below has suspected Covid-19. Artists are as far removed from key workers as you can get. But our ‘job’ is still relevant: One of the aims of an artwork is to give the viewer a chance go beyond their immediate state of being. Artists are not defined by our locus or materials or, within reason, funding. We are very fortunate in this regard. Other art forms are more structurally affected and badly need governmental support, I am thinking in particular of the musicians – dear friends and collaborators – at the Royal College of Music.
My lockdown location is a one and a half bedroom flat, situated in SE1, with no outside space. However by a strange coincidence the council have been repairing the roof of the building and I have taken to using the scaffolding platform as a terrace at weekends. I can lie out there and have a great view of the prefabricated concrete Cotton Gardens Estates by George Finch, the radiant One The Elephant by Squire & Partners, and also the gardens at NHS Care Center by Cullinan Studio.
There is a persistent and uncanny calm in central London. It renders every day into a peaceful Sunday in the suburbs. But the birdsong is now loaded: this calm is the sound of absence; it is the sound of death in the afternoon wearing bright spring clothes. Paradoxically the clean air is an effect of a global catastrophe, it is climate change speeded up. Let us hope less pollution and access to outside space becomes even more urgent through the choices we make in the future, not by accident.
Confined to my flat during weekdays, instead of making drawings and maquettes in the studio, I am in research mode and have just finished Tim Morton’s book ‘Ecology without Nature’ and ‘Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees’ by artist Robert Irwin. I await the delivery of 'In Ruins' by Christopher Woodward. Tim Morton is one of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy. His online talks are numerous; there is one in which he discusses Ruskin’s “The Golden Stain of Time”.
My research is connected to an ongoing project to create a series of sculptural works for Rothamsted Agricultural research laboratories in Harpenden. Rothamsted has been at the forefront of research for some 175 years. The artworks will lead the public around the research fields which surround the laboratories and help the viewer engage with complex but fundamental science. Our first collaboration was exhibited at the Fitzwilliam Museum in response to a caryatid in the museum’s collection which once stood outside the Temple of Demeter near Athens. I had planned a trip to Greece where we would be using a new technology to bring this temple to the museum online. It's a 3D tool called Matterport which we used recently to document a wallpainting I made for Schroder’s new headquarters at a Make Architects building, London Wall Place.
From my perch on the scaffolding I can see St Thomas’s hospital, where I was admitted in 2018 having been knocked off my bicycle with an arm broken in five places. The A&E care was hugely impressive and being there overnight was inspirational if deeply upsetting. One can only imagine what it is like there now.
How could we make a memorial for those people who can’t see their loved ones for the last time? Would a physical memorial be anachronistic? Nine months after my trip to A&E my arm was sufficiently healed for me to abseil off the roof of the hospital as part of St Thomas’s annual fundraising efforts: This allowed an emotional recovery from the accident. Artists must try to find ways to do the same for a much more subtle and complex set of long-term issues. Ultimately the pandemic is not the problem; it is just a symptom.
Hugo Dalton words and photos
The Architecture Club member