Words Jonathan Velardi
Photography Kirk Truman
Fitzrovia is no stranger to underground activity. A boring machine, 40 metres shy of the height of the BT Tower tunnels, with precision below the streets of its southern edge with neighbouring Soho, in the name of Crossrail railway. In parallel with the underground works carving its way through the capital, a different kind of excavation all together surfaced at the beginning of the year when artist, Thomas Allen unearthed a cave – less subterranean, more subconscious – for his latest artwork. Thomas took up residence at contemporary aboriginal art specialist, Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery on Charlotte Street over the course of a month in January to embark on a decidedly analogue investigation of the area and its community for source material towards the production of an immersive installation titled, ‘Contemporary Cave Painting’.
“My aim was to design a calm, meditative space,” Thomas tells me of his conceptual cave. A prescription for the local community consumed with construction and disruption, or a refuge for the West Sussex-based artist transplanted into metropolitan madness, I wondered. “In the same way prehistoric man would have retreated into deep, dark chambers underground in order to turn inward – performing rites and rituals – I turned inwards to create a record of the internal world,” he explains. This record, or ‘mindscape’ as Thomas refers to it, was central to the cave’s conception, which orbited around emergent and collective phenomena: the interaction of a multiplicity of individual units. The artist’s background as a graduate in sociology informs his approach to art-making. “I’ve been interested in emergent phenomena for a while now, whether it’s the way thousands of termites conspire to create what is an incredibly complex structure: a termite cathedral; or the way a number of essentially abstract marks come together on a piece of paper to form a recognisable representation of something.” During an application for an artist residency a few years ago, Thomas had the idea of representing his interest in collective phenomena into the collective unconscious of a locality. He looked at the Surrealist method of automatic drawing from the early twentieth century, whereby the hand is allowed to draw freely on paper as a means of tapping into the unconscious of individuals, in order to reach some idea of the collective unconscious.
Having approached Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, a platform that has championed non-Western artistic traditions from artisans around the world, with his intentions of creating a twenty-first century primal mural, Thomas soon began work on the installation at the gallery’s Charlotte Street address. He spent time walking around and observing daily life, drawing inspiration from the sights and sounds of Fitzrovia. With only the use of pen and paper he solicited scribbles from members of the public to engage with their individual unconscious. “The public were surprisingly receptive to the idea, so long as they didn’t assume I was carrying out a survey or asking for money when I approached them with my clipboard,” he laughs. Hundreds of automated drawings were collected on the street as well as from visitors to the gallery who watched Thomas install his painting with the sole use of a handheld lamp; an ironic caveman’s torch. With a comical wave of his hands, he illustrates how he then turned ‘art medium’, deciphering the random scribbles that created an introspective landscape of strokes and textures, which in turn were translated onto the gallery walls in charcoal, sanguine and graphite. I asked Thomas how the public reacted to his elementary request in an age of universal image-making – whether it be society’s ‘curated’ eye with various photographic apps or drawing tools on their tablets: “the diversity of these archetypes were fantastic. I could often recognise different artistic styles in embryonic form embodied on the page, such as Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse or Mondrian. However, I hadn’t expected the considerable number of people who struggled with the idea of scribbling without thinking about it, without drawing anything in particular. It seems like such a simple idea and yet, quite often they froze up.”
Visitors to the space were confronted with a hessian curtain hung at the entrance of the cave that acted as a veil between the internal and external worlds; ‘a receptacle for the collective unconscious of Fitzrovia’ reveals the artist. Once inside, a single lamp illuminated the blacked out space and its warm ochre-wash interior that had been created from approximately 300 tea bags, which stained twelve square metres of paper to line the walls. The unique portrait undulated from corner to corner, floor to ceiling and commanded greater intrigue by the fact it was born organically from the artist’s direct relationship with the local environment and the hundreds of contributions from the public. Thomas explains, “the only thing I couldn’t plan for in advance was the drawing itself; that had to emerge spontaneously.”
The ‘Contemporary Cave Painting’ embodied multi-contextual collaborative and performative qualities, not least a possibility for this topographic artwork to perform a visual commentary at various travelling sites and locations. While there are no immediate plans for him to take his conceptual cave elsewhere, Thomas is considering new angles to source these topographic portraits. “Today’s use of technology is really interesting to me. I’ve flirted with the idea of obtaining contributions from the public via an online app and I wonder how the medium might affect the scribbles.” He tells me he’s also very interested in comparing the communities where he carries out his projects by identifying not only the differences but also the similarities between social areas. Thomas continues, “I’ve always found that my enquiries – artistic and philosophical – tend towards an investigation of universalities,” before posing the eternal question that bridges the worlds of art, archaeology and sociology together: “what do we all have in common?”