The mighty Thames cuts through the center of London, but the city’s second river, the Lea, remains mostly hidden from view. And by its banks, in the borough of Newham, far from the well-heeled streets of Chelsea and Hampstead, some of the city’s most deprived residents live.
Megan Piper decided she wanted to bring some art into their lives. During her childhood, her parents took her to art galleries, forging a lifelong passion for art that developed into a career. But while working in logistics for a gallery, Piper was struck by how much art is hidden in storage or private collections — art that might be enriching the lives of people who don’t get to galleries much.
Now an art dealer, Piper and a friend, Clive Dutton, devised the Line, a project to bring great art outside. Dutton had previously worked on regeneration projects across East London connected to the London Olympics in 2012.
“I am a born-and-bred Londoner, but there is a black hole in my geography of this part of the city,” Piper explained. “It’s an idea of hidden artworks for hidden waterways.”
The Greenwich Meridian Line runs north-south, slicing the globe in two; the sculpture walk Piper and Dutton devised roughly follows the meridian, inspiring the name.
The pair recruited artist Mark Wallinger, winner of Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize, to the team as cheerleader, using his profile to lend art-world gravitas to the project. More recently, Carolyn H. Miner, formerly of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, joined the team as curator.
Wallinger is perhaps best known for his 1999 sculpture “Ecce Homo,” in Trafalgar Square. The rotating statues there and the intense public engagement with them inspired the sense of public accessibility and ownership behind the Line. A crowdfunding campaign to engage Londoners followed and raised more than $200,000 in initial funds.
My journey along the Line had an inauspicious start at Bromley-by-Bow tube station. It took me a while to find the first piece of work, situated across a busy road and down by the canal.
“Network,” by Thomas J Price, a nine-foot sculpture of a young black man gazing intently at a cellphone, stands casually next to a playground — reminding us to look up, look around and interact with the here and now.
As I followed the signs southward, the here and now momentarily seemed to disappear. I had arrived at Three Mills, said to be the oldest tidal mill in Britain, whose buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries and evoke an era when Dickens roamed London.
The House Mill is now home to a visitor center, arts space and cafe. I was ushered upstairs to view the second artwork on my quest. The “Transfiguration” series, an installation by renowned video artist Bill Viola, is the only non-sculpture currently featured on the Line.
From the darkness, obscure figures emerge walking toward the viewer and, finally, through a wall of water to confront us with their gaze.
After I viewed the work, the kindly gent in charge gave me some detailed instructions to help me locate the next sculpture since the map that accompanies that walk is a little tricky to follow. The Line Web site’s map now links to Google Maps, making navigation more user-friendly.
I found my way through an industrial estate and back to the River Lea. In front of a huge Amazon logistics building, I was confronted with a comment on consumerism: “DNA DL90” by Abigail Fallis, 22 shopping carts arranged in the shape of a DNA helix. In the background lies the capitalist haven of Canary Wharf.
Next stop was the blockbuster: a work by Damien Hirst. And true to form, Britain’s Peter Pan of shock art turned to a biology textbook for inspiration to create “Sensation,” a colorful depiction of a cross section of human skin.
The sky was darkening and I seized the chance to stop at Cody Dock, a community project co-founded by local resident Simon Myers, who is also a member of the selection panel for the Line. A garden, a space for local cultural events and a cafe in a boat, the project now boasts herons and kingfishers among its visitors. Myers told me that during the first two weeks after the Line was launched (at the end of May) they had 150 visitors each weekday and around 1,000 each weekend.
Myers hopes the project will reconnect Newham residents with the River Lea and incubate a vibrant art scene like the one in the neighboring borough of Hackney.
A quick trip on the Docklands Light Railway from the Star Lane station brought me to Royal Victoria docks, an area that has been transformed by redevelopment. Buildings reach skyward, and the Emirates Air Line cable car hangs overhead, but another cluster of sculptures attracted my gaze back to street level.
In front of the futuristic Siemens building sits “Consolidator #654321,” by Sterling Ruby, a hunk of red steel. Nearby, “Work No. 700,” by Martin Creed, three thin metal beams stacked together, stands serenely on the dockside, while Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s “Vulcan,” a huge cubist figure of a man, stands guard over the wharf.
London’s most unusual form of transport, the Emirates Air Line cable car, beckoned me into the clouds. I ascended up over the Thames toward “The O2,” a.k.a. the Millennium Dome, where the cultural regeneration of East London began.
My vantage point allowed me to look down on “Consolidator #654321” and Antony Gormley’s “Quantum Cloud,” which was commissioned for the Millennium Dome and completed before its opening in 1999. Gormley is best known for his “Angel of the North” sculpture and his recurring theme of the human form. Indeed, there is a human body at the steel center of “Quantum Cloud,” but you need to look carefully to see it. The work has now joined the Line as part of the sculpture trail.
The O2 is now a popular entertainment venue, hosting concerts. I wandered away from the crowds to the deserted river walk.
Here, a second long-established artwork joins the project: “A Slice of Reality,” by Richard Wilson. Another cross section, this time of a ship, it shows the living quarters and innards of a vessel.
A signpost indicates that my journey is complete. The last work, Thomson and Craighead’s “Here,” points to London’s banking powerhouses just across the Thames. The number on the sign, 24,859, denotes the meridional circumference of the Earth in miles.
The works were chosen by a panel that included Piper, Dutton, Myers and Wallinger. The first requirement was “excellence,” Wallinger said, followed by a need “to be robust enough to exist outdoors for a couple of years, but beyond that we judged it blind.”
The Line is by no means complete. The sculptures there now are expected to be in place for two years. The plan is that it will evolve, providing more opportunities to engage local people and to liberate more art.
Starrs is a writer and television producer based in London.
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Ibis London Excel Docklands
9 Western Gateway, Royal Victoria Dock, London E16 1AB
Ebor St., London E16 1AW
Luxurious boutique hotel, part of private members club Shoreditch House, a branch of Soho House. Rooms are priced around $460 for non-members of the club.
Galvin La Chapelle
35 Spital Sq., London, E1 6DY
A one Michelin-star restaurant for fans of fine dining. Most main dishes are priced about $46.
Best to start at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Loop Road, Stratford E20 2ST (nearest tube Stratford High Street) or the O2 (a.k.a. the Millennium Dome). Nearest tube is North Greenwich. The total walk is three miles in a straight line and takes about three hours to complete, including sections on public transport.
Emirates Air Line cable car
Royal Docks, Edmund Halley Way, SE10 0FR (nearest public transport Royal Victoria station is Docklands Light Railway)
The cable car links to Emirates Greenwich Peninsula (nearest tube: North Greenwich), and you can start the journey at either end. You get a bird’s-eye view of Greenwich Peninsula, the O2 and several artworks on the Line sculpture trail. A ticket on the Air Line cable car costs $6.84, or just over $5 with a Transport for London travel card.