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Museum of London Docklands marks 10th anniversary with the opening of 'Estuary'

— May 2013

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Jock McFadyen, Purfleet from Dracula's Garden © the artist

The outer limits of the River Thames are explored in 'Estuary', a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, part of the museum’s 10th anniversary.
In the largest contemporary art exhibition to be held in the grade-one listed Georgian warehouse, 'Estuary' will contain the work of 12 London-based artists, each of whom have used the Thames Estuary region as their source of inspiration.
The free exhibition brings together new and existing pieces of photography, paintings, printmaking and film from the last 30 years and will be on display in the Chris Ellmers gallery until 27 October 2013. 'Estuary' is supported by public funding from Arts Council England.
A new film by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsenhas been commissioned in collaboration with the Film & Video Umbrella, which proceeds downriver, weaving together fragments and traces of the people and the places that define the character of the Estuary. Conceived as a work in several parts, it will add new 'chapters' over the course of the exhibition.Christiane Baumgartner’s Gravesend (2013)has also been especially commissioned for ‘Estuary’, combining traditional printmaking techniques with her own photographs.
Francis Marshall, Senior Curator for ‘Estuary’said:

By bringing together these contemporary pieces we hope to give a sense of just what an extraordinary landscape London has on its doorstep, and to explore some of the issues which characterize the city’s relationship with the estuary today.
Whilst each piece is independently displayed, there are common themes that resonate throughout. Giving the estuary a sense of place is explored in film, for example by John Smith in Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian) (2012) (commissioned by Turner Contemporary, Margate) in Andrew Kötting’s Jaunt (1995) and in William Raban’s Thames Film (1986), which retraces Thomas Pennant's 1787 Journey from London to Dover.
William Raban added:

I am delighted that a version of Thames Film will be shown in the Museum of DocklandsEstuary’Exhibition. The appearance of the river has changed dramatically in the intervening 27 years but essentially the power of the river remains timeless and will always be a rich source of inspiration for artists.

Other artists also use the river to meditate on London’s history. Stephen Turner’s remarkable Seafort Project (2005) is the result of his 36-day residence alone on the derelict searchlight tower of the Shivering Sands Seafort. This Maunsell fort was one in a series of military platforms built in the estuary to provide defence against Luftwaffe squadrons during World War II. Historically, the estuary also served as a playground for Londoners escaping the city, and Simon Robert reflects a contemporary view of pleasure seeking with his Southend(2010) photograph of the popular seaside resort from his ‘Pierdom’series. Michael Andrews’ two images Thames Painting: The Estuary (1994-95) and Study for The Estuary (1994) also capture the mood of the river, based on material gathered during trips to Canvey Island, combined with 19th-century photographs of the river.

‘Estuary’opens against the backdrop of an ambivalent relationship between London and the wilderness on its doorstep.  The estuary threatens to swamp the city with powerful tidal surges and rising sea levels but is itself threatened ecologically by the capital’s transport and energy-generating proposals. Recent debates regarding a new estuary airport have prompted a renewed focus on this region of England. This ecological theme appears in Gayle Chong Kwan’s The Golden Tide (2013), a photo series of refuse found in the estuary and in the paintings by Jock McFadyen: Purfleet: from Dracula’s Garden (2001) and Dagenham(2006). Peter Marshall’s Thames Gateway (2000–4) also presents the urban landscape surrounding the Estuary.  

51º 29'.9" North - 0º11' East(1985), a film by the Bow Gamelan Ensemble will also be screened. It includes the percussion group performing a bold experimental composition in the midst of rising tide waters at Rainham marshes.

Meanwhile as artists explore the relationship between London and the estuary, a mini exhibition will consider the current debates surrounding the controversial estuary airport proposal.

About the Thames estuary
The Thames estuary is a place both specific and vague. A liminal zone, it is where the river meets the sea, as fresh water becomes brackish then saline. Its shoreline and surrounding hinterland is characterized by low-lying land, stretches of mudflats, saltmarshes, sandy beaches, nature reserves, industrial units, container ports, power stations, ferry terminals, and seaside resorts.

It is a delicate ecosystem, home to many rare or threatened species. But the power of the tidal Thames represents a significant threat to the city of London.  We tap its resources and rely on it for trade, yet keep it at bay with a flood barrier. Historically, the estuary was London’s playground.  Sandy beaches and fresh sea air lured Londoners to Estuary towns as early as the Georgian period. Traditional holiday destinations such as Ramsgate, Margate and Southend-on-Sea (still home to the world’s longest pier) thrived throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The strategic significance of the estuary cannot be overstated. In the 20th century a series of military platforms, Maunsell Forts, were built in the estuary to provide defence against Luftwaffe squadrons using the river as a navigation aid on their way to bomb London. After the war, they were used as bases for pirate radio stations such as Radio City and Radio Essex. These structures still stand, though now rotting.

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