A journey elsewhere: in search of Steffi Klenz's Dagenham Heathway

Stara, Alexandra (2009) A journey elsewhere: in search of Steffi Klenz's Dagenham Heathway. London Independent Photography, Spring(12), pp. 24-25. ISSN (print) 1746-4153


Non-places don’t exist. The term, introduced by Marc Augé in his seminal book of the same title in the mid-90s, is a conceptualization that describes transient places, stripped of specificity and character, as essential by-products of our hyper-technological, globalized ‘super-modernity’, another of Augé’s terms. ‘Non-place’ is a seductive and frequently useful characterization, as it captures well the alienation and malaise of our times; but it is also a dangerous one, which, if carelessly applied, can flatten the real and lived in one fell sweep. However, Steffi Klenz has been working with what she calls ‘non-places’ for several years now, and, in her case, the term seems to have found some of its most apposite subjects. This is because Klenz’s subjects don’t really exist either. Whether a utopian urban project, a deserted estate due for demolition or heaps of building materials in empty stretches of peripheral London, the locations where Klenz has turned her camera all hover between an existing reality and an imagined condition. The train journey to Dagenham Heathway, on the northeastern edge of the District Line, is a very good way to immerse oneself into the generic banality of London’s protracted fadeout into suburbia, and to that other thing beyond, the mutation of joined up, featureless towns and settlements into an ersatz-urban sprawl. But people live here, and its claim to reality is in abundant evidence, whether in Roy’s Pie & Mash, the Cherubim & Seraphim Church or the different net curtains in the identical windows of 70s red brick housing. Klenz’s Dagenham, however, is an altogether different place. Just over a half-hour’s walk beyond the Heathway, crossing the land of the old Ford Motor Works and past increasingly sparse, deserted buildings, the landscape is largely empty and desolate; and then one finally arrives there: the flimsily fenced lot with heaps of road surfacing materials, leftovers from the A13 extension. The barrenness of this spot is rather stunning, with something strangely epic emerging through its desolation. The open, nondescript horizons and absence of inhabitation have something of a western movie to them. Not the technicolor, romanticised westerns of yore, but the gritty, latter-day ones, where the sublime is substituted with something more sober and unforgiving that speaks of displacement and time’s fleetingness. Still, the landscapes in Klenz’s photographs cannot be located. The place of the photographs’ origins is here, but the place within the photographs is elsewhere. We are accustomed to photography preserving the form while altering the mood of a place – but here we have a reversal: what can be seen on and from the actual site bears no resemblance to Klenz’s images, though the mood is deftly captured. This may be a strange thing to say for an artist whose work is so dispassionate and often aligned with the sparseness of the Bechers, yet the result of Klenz’s paring down reveals more about this abandoned lot, even as it appears to withhold. It captures the persistent sense of unreality that comes when almost all marks of specificity are erased and recognition becomes delegated to imagination rather than memory. Man-made yet uninhabited, imposing yet scale-less, present yet atemporal, the place in Klenz’s photographs is simultaneously the abandoned site in Dagenham and elsewhere, just like the site itself is simultaneously in Dagenham and elsewhere. It is a ‘non-place’, then, not as a negation of its existence, but of its specificity. It might be that the reality of the place, stripped as it is of any distinctiveness, can become evocative of many other places, real and imaginative, actual and possible. It is this potential that Klenz captures in her photographs. And these, in turn, begin to suggest an alternative mapping of London’s periphery, where the blank patches of A-Z, with no buildings or roads, become filled with coloured earth and bleached skies of a transient, unexpected beauty.

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