© Photo Aton Gottlob
In October 2017, König London opened its doors on Edgware Road in Marylebone. Twelve months later, Berlin-based artist Michael Sailstorfer came to the city to prepare his solo exhibition "Tear Show. He met up with art critic Oliver Basciano and together they walked through the neighborhood of the gallery space.
© Photo Aton Gottlob
Michael Sailstorfer reclines on a deck chair in Hyde Park sipping a Coke, his sunglasses shielding him from the morning after. It’s quiet in the park today. I tell him he’s sitting in the shadow of Speaker’s Corner, and that when I was here last Sunday it was as if every religious fundamentalist, political nut, and wide-eyed conspiracist, high on indignation and frustration, had gathered. They stood on kick stools, drew in chalk on the winding path, handed out leaflets, and brandished banners, but mostly they argued. They’ve been arguing here since 1872. Intensely, performatively, and always with the edge that violence might be just around the corner. On Sunday, a couple of police officers stood at the edges. Now, however, Sailstorfer only has the pigeons and me for company.
© Photo Anton Gottlob
The artist is having his first exhibition at KÖNIG LONDON – it opened the night before our meeting, hence the Coke, hence the sunglasses – a year after the German gallery opened in the British capital. The art space is located in a former underground car park and faded parking lines can still be discerned beneath the installation of D.A.V.E.L.O.M.B.A.R.D.O. (2015), a set of drums which Sailstorfer has programmed to automatically beat out a slowed and pared-down solo. Cars used to be brought to this subterranean space by lift, and in this dark box, the artist shows TRÄNEN (2015), a video work in which tear-shaped concrete blocks seemingly fall from the sky onto a farmhouse which, by the end of the film, is all but flattened.
The gallery has suggested I show Sailstorfer the surrounding area, cleaved by the busy Edgware Road that buffs the gentile cafés and shops of Marylebone and dully residential Bayswater. As much as it is clogged with traffic, it’s busy with locals. On George Street, which runs off the road to the south, a gent named Sake Dean Mohamed opened London’s first Indian restaurant in 1810, the Hindoostane Coffee House. The area remains a mecca of immigration and food, although it is better known for being settled by generations of Arab and Persian speakers.
© Photo Anton Gottlob
As Sailstorfer and I walk up to Marble Arch, through which we pass to get to Speakers’ Corner, we stop occasionally to peer into the restaurants, cafés, and hookah bars. Some are testament to Middle East conflicts, past and present, the wars bringing émigrés and refugees to the city, others come from just an immigrant’s sense of industriousness and adventure: Al Arez Express Cafe & Juice, Al-Dar Lebanese, Khuttar Iraqi Cuisine, Alomda Egyptian kitchen, Sidi Maarouf Moroccan.
Sailstorfer bought his Coke from a shop that also sold ceremonial swords and racks of Turkish delight. I show the artist Fantasia Palace, a Greek restaurant that occupies the premises of a former Truman’s Brewery pub, the frontage of exposed beams and Victorian advertisements for stout at odds with the assembled Mediterranean men puffing on shisha outside. With all this, it’s hard not to think of the area as the last scene of stories that started far away. I ask Sailstorfer the idea behind his show – the walls are lined with paintings of a single teardrop, almost emoji-like in their simplicity; there’s an installation of glass-blown tears too – and the artist says it is about sadness. We talk about how emotions can be visualized and how they are reduced within that process.
© Photo Anton Gottlob
We’re on a back street that stretches through into Fitzrovia. As we pass the Leonard Hotel, I remember a friend telling me it was here, in this hotel brazen with Britishness and old wealth, that the troubled daughter of the last Shah of Iran died. Young and alone, far from her childhood in Tehran, she overdosed. I think back to Sailstorfer’s video in which a building is destroyed by sadness: places can be destroyed by emotion as much as people.
Edgware Road is more of an artery than anything, as likely seen by the nonlocal from the top deck of a bus. Sailstorfer tells me he never came here when he was studying in London. Goldsmiths is south, he lived east. In a documentary for the BBC, John Betjeman made on the area in 1968, the poet laureate bemoans this lack of attention: “The road that no-one looks upon, except as birds of passage / Oh Edgware Road be our abode and let us hear your message.” Betjeman is correct that the rush of cars hurtling from Westminster into London’s northern suburbs drowns a rich culture. In 2009, the Serpentine Gallery established the Edgware Road Project in collaboration with the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo and Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, an initiative that embedded artists into the area to study its history and produce new (often collaborative) work. It ran until 2013 and the results were extraordinarily prolific. I still stumble across projects produced under its auspices in biennials and exhibitions around the world. Galleries are rare in these parts, however, yet König is not totally alone. At the opposite end of the road, as it slips into Westbourne Park, is Lisson Gallery, established in 1967, and beyond that the nonprofit institution The Showroom operates.
We amble back, stopping for pickles and strong tea at Ranoush, an eatery that is all chrome and checkered floor. I tell Sailstorfer about the Tyburn tree, the name for the gallows from which London hung its Catholic martyrs and murderers alike. He tells me about how much of his work is biographical, though he never wants this to be obvious. The conversation veers in and out, this way and that. Despite the dark history, Edgware Road is an apt place to make a new friend: it has long been an area of hope and new settlement for many. Betjeman complained of its changing character – the loss of a music hall and new modernist flats came up. Yet this has always been a place in flux, its character as fast-moving as the traffic that pollutes it. A place of fleeting meetings and new beginnings. Sailstorfer and I wander back, past the grocer and currency exchange, the electronic shop and pharmacy, and then part strangers no more.