Broadcast from 1989 to 1994, and set in a hairdressers in Peckham, Desmond’s was one of the first British sitcoms to have a predominantly Black West Indian cast. Watched from my white North London suburban shelter, it was a window onto a mirrorworld only a few miles away.
Fast forward to August 2009. Peckham remains one of the most West Indian areas of London. Street level shopping is a riot of hairpieces, immense earrings, piles of breadfruit, callalloo and sweet mangoes, Nigerian doughnuts with lethal cholesterol levels, tilapia fish and red snapper, rum cream, aphrodisiac wine, and fifteen different brands of Supermalt. Then, unexpectedly tucked away up one of the litter-strewn alleyways, you find the Peckham Vue multiplex cinema and its hulking carapace of multistorey car park.
Over the summer, the roof of this car park was temporarily transformed for the Bold Tendencies III exhibition and Frank’s Campari bar. Finding the exhibition was a challenge in itself. The handwritten sign ‘Lifts out of order. Please use alternative lifts at the side’ directed us to a lift that threatened to be alternative in the sense of not lifting at all. Escaping at last from its aches and creaks, we found ourselves in more uncertain territory, on the 7th floor with no sign of Art at all. A sign directing us to Bold Tendencies led only to a piss-smelling lobby with three blank walls and another sign pointing back in the direction we’d come.
As we ascended, climbing the car-less ramps and trying to shake the sense of being trapped in a sadistic text adventure, we finally started to see the telltale signs of Nearby Art: loose gaggles of people with specs wearing black; abandoned sheets of A4 paper blowing in the high-up wind; distant mobile-phone braying. There were glimpses of a long-distance view between concrete columns, but not stopping to look, we pressed on up.
Eventually we emerged on to the rooftop and into a version of Peckham which had been through the looking-glass again. Up here, everyone was white. Young. Middle-class. We eschewed the jostle and bray of the overpriced Campari bar, and instead climbed up Molly Smyth’s 'Motion Towards Collapse' (a not-quite-symmetrical pile of concrete blocks) to warm ourselves with homemade blackberry gin (thanks to Dogsbody D) and admire the 360-degree views across the city.
The art works themselves, mostly minimalist metal or stone sculptures, were none of them individually especially striking, but the overall effect had something about it: odd abandoned shapes scattered across a windswept concrete plateau under the threatening August skies. Works such as James Balmforth’s 'Failed Obelisk', a broken Cleopatra’s needle topped by a jagged block of stone bouncing on a metal spring, and Theo Turpin's 'Between You and I', a diving board hovering over a sky-facing mirror, plus assorted other black, shiny, municipal, and suspended objects, looked thoroughly at home in this brutalist space.
Whether or not they added anything to it is open to question. But it succeeded as one of those school-holiday public art events; boyfriends were photographing girlfriends and fathers photographing children in a way that suggested a thousand future Facebook uploads. We wandered around this post-apocalyptic playground, drinking in the illicit views of railway sidings, until the bitter breezes got too much and we began the descent.
Back down on the lower levels, we stumbled across a cluster of installations that left us suitably discombobulated: heaps of fabric that, caught out of the corner of your eye, looked like collapsed misshapen people; a smashed-up car under a canvas sheet with a note telling you not to look underneath it; maps and scale models of nothing real. Without the rooftop panorama, without a clear sense of direction, aware of strange shapes in the shadows, there was a growing sense of the ominous in this low-roofed and unforgiving space.
We left shivering and glad to return to the relative shelter and human scale at street level.
Bold Tendencies III, Monumental Sculpture Show (Hannah Barry gallery), Level 10, Peckham Rye multistorey car park, 95a Rye Lane, London SE15 4ST. 30 June – 30 September 2009