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“Art of breathtaking precision, political sensitivity and power”—Savage Messiah reviewed by Bidisha

Kishani Widyaratna 2 November 2011

Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiahcollecting issues of her acclaimed art zine that charted her psychogeographic drifts through a decaying city, has been reviewed by Bidisha for Notes on Culture, her new online magazine. Bidisha praised the book, describing it as "reportage turned into art of breathtaking precision, political sensitivity and power." In a rich and engaging review, Bidisha gave her thoughts on the nature of Ford's artistic project in Savage Messiah and why the zines are so effective.

Ford observes, sketches and photographs these areas, which are simultaneously forgotten and earmarked for exploitation, making notes and speaking to residents. The result is not straight reportage or urban landscape recording but reality with the zoom lens sniper eye tuned to the max. The cracks in walls, the scrubby greenery growing between slabs, the broad backs of massed riot police and the sad, scratchy graffiti cut into the page with intense monochrome menace. There is, appropriately, a savagery and sharpness underlying Ford's work, equal parts anger, despair, love and urgency. The images are beautiful and terrible: fantasy figures of fashion brand advertising on hoardings next to blocks of flats with smashed out windows.

Bidisha then turned her attention to the literary aspects of Ford's practice:

I would like to see equal recognition of the complementary element of Savage Messiah: the text. Printed in white Courier font on the inky matte background, Ford composes journalistic essays based on her observation of the sites she visits (her riffs on the gleaming monstrosity of Westfield shopping centre are hilarious), reports on her experiences and relays candid conversations with the many hundreds of residents of the unglossy areas usually ignored by lifestyle mag articles on the coolness of the East End. The stories are sad, funny, tragic and true. They are not reported verbatim but are as honed, edited, balanced and polished as the visuals.

She concludes that Savage Messiah's particular achievement lies in it ability to capture East London in its present crisis, past history and future ruination:

Savage Messiah functions as both a literary and an artistic history of the vast geographical area Ford covers, often starting with a present moment like a property earmarked for demolition or an area blocked against wanderers or trespassers. It then moves back in time to excavate the experiences of locals, uncover previous uses of the site and reveal many different biographical, architectural, social and cultural manifestations across the decades. It is as much a seemingly-spontaneous (but actually highly refined) postwar people's history as a fierce and visually stunning contemporary elegy for an East London that will soon be engulfed in the razzmatazz of the 2012 Olympics - before being abandoned once more.

Visit Notes on Culture to read the review in full.

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