diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 24, 2015

What do you mean you haven't walked The Line yet? Some of us have walked it twice.

The Line is a contemporary art trail through East London, approximately following the Greenwich Meridian, with a dozen sculptures (and one video installation) spread out along the way. Everything's free to visit, apart from the necessary trip on the DLR and the connecting flight on the cablecar. Except it turns out The Line's not linear, and not all the sculptures have been installed yet, and come on we covered all this yesterday, pay attention.

If you're thinking of following The Line, your first battle will be with the official website. The 'About' page features flowery prose of the most meaningless kind (which on a smartphone appears as black text on a dark blue background so is thankfully unreadable). The list of artists doesn't yet allow you to click to find out what each work of art actually is (I think because someone somewhere missed a programming deadline). And the map is semi-dysfunctional, essentially a Google map with most of the underlying navigation bleached-out, which on a laptop you can zoom into but there's no way to zoom out. For those of you unfamiliar with the Lower Lea Valley, best track down this belatedly-published map and keep it close, it's your best hope of getting around.

The Line is well signed throughout, so long as you know roughly where you're going (follow the red background if walking north and the blue background if walking south). Well signed everywhere, that is, except at the very beginning and at the very end. There's no mention whatsoever of The Line on Stratford High Street, with the first sign attached to a fingerpost a quarter of a mile down the river where you'd never accidentally find it. Similarly there's no mention of The Line at the O2 or at North Greenwich station, nor even which way to head out of the bus station to find the obscure backroad to the waterside. This means The Line has very little chance of attracting passing trade, you have to know about it in advance and go deliberately, else you'll miss it.

At the northern end, the first sculpture is on Three Mills Green. On Friday evening there was only a hole in the turf surrounded by plastic barriers, and a ladder up a lamppost where the essential CCTV was being installed. Early on Saturday afternoon two vans and a crane had turned up, cutting it fine on opening day, with a group of hi-vis blokes attempting to empty bags of soil around the base of a statue. But by teatime the staging had departed and what remained by the playground path was a solid-looking bronze bloke in a puffa jacket staring at his phone. He got some due attention from various passers-by, including one Afro-Caribbean gentleman who seemed to be smiling to see himself reflected in a work of public art.

The most unusual artwork on The Line is at the House Mill, which (if you've never walked through Bromley-by-Bow before) is the largest tidal water mill in the world, and well worth taking a tour round one day. Three mostly black and white videos have been installed on the first floor, accessed via a door at the far end of the mill, which will be open between 11am and 4pm every day between now and 28th August. You'll get to stand among the old timbers and watch Bill Viola's digital "Transfigurations" - three eight minute films in which various characters emerge from the darkness and get very wet. I'll not say too much more, except that I thought they were very powerful works, but everyone else I went in with left before all three loops had repeated.

To get to the next work requires a dull detour down the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road to Twelvetrees Bridge, rather than a more pleasant stroll down the river. This lack of connection has been the bugbear of every previous attempt to drive a proper footpath down the Lea, including the ill-fated Fatwalk whose plans imploded a few years back. The Line's organising team have promised that a temporary staircase will be provided to create a direct link, but I can't see how they'll manage that in anything resembling the near future, nor indeed the medium term. Nevertheless I was very impressed to see the footpath to the south, which I've always considered an overlooked secret, buzzing with people. It's home to The Line's most appealing sculpture, and the work attracting the most photographic attention - a double helix of supermarket trolleys rising into the sky.

Saturday was a golden day at Cody Dock, the day they finally flung open the gates and allowed access 24/7. This community asset has been built from desolate waterside over the last few years, and is now a lively spot complete with houseboats, colourful gardens and various spaces for the running of workshops. Scores of people had turned up to celebrate, lubricated by the presence of a vintage bus serving craft beer, with children running everywhere (including clambering all over the Damian Hirst). Cody Dock's head honcho Simon Myers stepped up to give a speech, thanking everyone who'd mucked in to help out, and a local councillor claimed this as a big win for Canning Town North. A snip of the scissors left a symbolic ribbon fluttering in the breeze, and hey presto this part of the riverside connection was complete. I never thought I'd see the day.

Having to take the DLR for the next bit of The Line dampens things somewhat, but there is no riverside path to the Royal Docks, and anyway they're well over a mile away. The subsequent cluster of sculptures is by far the farthest from the Greenwich Meridian, and also a nail in the coffin of any expectations that The Line might be linear. Instead four sculptures have been placed around three sides of a long dock, requiring visitors to walk up and back, twice, to view them. One's those three girders I mentioned yesterday, still surrounded by orange barriers, and which the youngsters attending ComiCon at Excel continued to studiously ignore. And one sculpture's still totally missing, with no explanation whatsoever, which is somewhat disappointing.

The Line finally gives the Dangleway a reason to exist, it being precisely the most direct route to the final four sculptures on the other side of the Thames. But at £3.40 a spin, and with the cabins brimming with cosplayed youth, I took the DLR and Jubilee line route instead (and still arrived in North Greenwich at the same time as a young woman in a black horned headdress). It didn't feel as if as many folk had made the effort to follow The Line right to the end, the Thames crossing perhaps being a step too far. And anyway, two of the four sculptures have been here more than 15 years, and one still hasn't been installed yet. But the last one's up, and is thought-provoking in its simplicity. A roadsign has been erected almost precisely on the Greenwich Meridian, announcing that "Here" is 24859 miles away, which indeed it is if you continue all the way around the world and back. Is it worth coming all this way for? Maybe. Does it make a good picture? Absolutely.

So I enjoyed The Line, but then it links two of my favourite urban-desolate walks so I would. If it brings more people to East London to enjoy them too, then great. But dipping back into civilisation again at the O2 I wondered quite how many people are going to be enticed into following a tortuous trail that involves four miles of walking, rather than the lightweight consumer culture most of those out and about seem to prefer. And when that walk delivers one sculpture only approximately every ten to fifteen minutes, perhaps the artistic rewards don't quite match the necessary effort. But that'd be their loss, I'd say, because what's always been an intriguing journey now has the added attraction of world-class art along the way. Come walk The Line sometime, because it's a darned sight more thought-provoking than yet another afternoon sitting in a cafe.

My gallery of 'The Line'
There are 30 photos altogether [slideshow]

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