What does the City of London look like through the eyes of a war photographer? That’s the question Fiona Banner asked when she was invited to collaborate with the Archive of Modern Conflict, a rather mysterious Kensington-based organisation which is only really known through its publishing arm. We’re not talking about London as shot by the likes of Bill Brandt during WWII, by the way – all rubble-mired landmarks and teeming Underground shelters. We’re talking about the Square Mile right now, as witnessed by a chronicler of twenty-first-century conflict. To find out, Banner commissioned Paolo Pellegrin, an Italian Magnum photographer who has covered war in Lebanon and Kosovo and its aftermath in Bosnia. She asked him to reflect on what goes on in London’s financial heart. Needless to say, he did more than take a few snaps of the Gherkin.
Pellegrin shot hundreds of photos right across the City, and Banner has stitched them together to make a six-minute digital projection choreographed to a pulsating soundtrack of voices and drums. There are emblems of war – a Chinook hovers into view, the camera lingers on the shields and armour of the City’s ancient guilds. There are images of after-work barneys that appear to describe a world at war with itself. Pellegrin’s lens lingers over anonymous details – grids of glass and steel, the edges of expensive art in office lobbies. He unearths clichés like discarded champagne bottles and men wearing pinstripe suits. And he ventures into some fairly inhospitable places: the interior of Richard Serra’s ‘Fulcrum’ sculpture and unofficial pissoir at Liverpool Street Station; a trading floor.
So what does the City of London look like? In short, it looks like we thought it did. Which is to say that it is at once identifiable and somehow unknowable. Banner makes this point as someone who has lived and worked on the City’s fringes for decades. As with her ‘A Room for London’ houseboat washed up on the South Bank, made in collaboration with the architect David Kohn, she refers to Joseph Conrad’s parable of savagery, greed and human nature ‘Heart of Darkness’, misquoting a line from Conrad’s 1899 novella for the title of the show to suggest that its renegade ivory trader Mr Kurtz is still alive. When the exhibition is over, some of Pellegrin’s photos will go to the Archive of Modern Conflict in a box labelled ‘Heart of Darkness, 2014’. Which is all very satisfying in an elliptical, contemporary art kind of way. But the show is richer and stranger than that. An empty champagne bottle props up a table, a rusting City of London bollard lies on the floor. Running round the walls are immense, seductive drawings of close-ups of pinstripe suits. The lines of the fabric become distorted, like a kind of shimmering Op Art – spectral, illusory. Sound familiar?