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Daniel Roth: The Well - South London Gallery

Feature by James Haddrell

THE opening exhibit in Daniel Roth’s first major solo show in the UK is a small, unassuming arrangement of photographs, surrounding a map of South London.

The map is covered in fine blue tracery indicating the routes of rivers through the city – many of which no longer exist – and the only caption to the piece is a handwritten note: The Lost Rivers.

This lack of explanation characterises much of Roth’s work, but the withholding of information is not designed to confuse. Rather, it allows us to bring our own sense of magic to what we see.

The idea that a river can somehow get lost has a superstitious feel to it – it is a notion which would seem as much at home in the fantasy worlds of Tolkien or Lewis as in the historical survey from which the map is taken.

Peckham itself, it transpires, has a watery past, taking its name from the now ‘lost’ River Peck, and the main elements of Roth’s installation play with the idea that the river, instead of drying up and disappearing, retreated underground, only to be rediscovered all these years later by the artist.

In the centre of the gallery stands a sealed bunker of rough, earthen blocks, the location of the alleged well, from which two pipes project. From these pipes, black water flows endlessly, glimpsed briefly before being channelled on its way through another pair of pipes into the floor.

At various points around the room the pipes resurface, taking over the space like some kind of copper creeper, tracing the walls before disappearing again. At points around the walls, the white paint is discoloured by damp – surely by the black water seeping from Roth’s fragile pipes.

Somehow it feels as though we are standing at the heart of something organic, the water not channelled by the pipes but guiding them, spreading out around the room, probing the walls of the gallery.

At another point in the gallery a square pool of still, impenetrable black water draws the attention. Whether it is fed from beneath the floor as part of the organic whole or represents a mind-bending view of the well which is otherwise hidden in the bunker really does not matter. What is important is the sense of depth. Unable to see beyond the surface of the pool, this watery gateway really could lead down into the depths of the earth.

The strangest piece in the exhibition is a small sheet of (apparently) human skin, stretched taut over a metal frame, with a rash of red dots spread over the surface.

It is clearly connected to the rest of the work, as the tell-tale pipe descending from the base of the frame and into the floor testifies, but it is with this piece that we are carried out of Peckham and into the wider world of Roth’s imagining.

On closer inspection, the rash of red pinpricks on the skin sketch an architectural plan, a plan, it transpires, based on an ancient underground church in Ethiopia. Clearly the concern with tunnelling underground connects the work to the rest of the installation, but there is also a suggestion that the rash is brought about by contact with the black waters running underneath the gallery, carrying with them a knowledge of everything hidden beneath the surface of the earth.

Just as the rash seems to emerge from the skin, the walls of the gallery are traced with delicate illustrations apparently surfacing from beneath the paint, images which combine root-like pipes, domestic rooms and the tools of industrial excavation in a comic-book, pop art style.

Here we see Roth’s unrefined ideas, jostling for space, the many ideas that have come to inform the finished installation. But if the black water is seeping into the wall, and these illustrations are then appearing, then the water must be connected to the artist himself.

This is Roth’s trick, to combine superstitious folklore and the breadth of his own fanciful imagination with the concrete, visible elements of the real world. In the corners of the gallery floor the permanent metal grilles, which allow a view down into the dark, earthy sub-floor, take on a new resonance.

The clearly defined panels in the floor which are occasionally lifted to reveal the ornate Victorian mosaic beneath encourage thoughts of the hidden depths. The line between fact and fiction is blurred almost beyond recognition, so that the distinction between the fantasy and the art, the magic and the truth is almost impossible to pin down.

There is no ultimate ‘meaning’ to The Well; it is not a jigsaw puzzle to be pieced together like the walls of the bunker or the chapters of a fairy story.

It is an organic collection of magical, fanciful notions in which you are invited to immerse yourself. Documentary sits alongside fantasy, fact against fiction, and all the while the sound of running water continues.

If you really give yourself up to Roth’s installation, then the longer you stay in the gallery the more you start to believe that maybe the river Peck, turned jet black with years of subterranean anticipation, has indeed returned to the surface in the South London Gallery, blackening the walls as it seeps from Roth’s copper piping; that maybe there is something magic flowing beneath the surface of South London, waiting to be released; that maybe the artist has somehow drilled through the floor of the gallery and intertwined his own imagination with some blackened liquid history; and that now, through the fragile piping, it’s searching for a way out…

Daniel Roth: The Well
Until March 13, 2006
South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH
020 7703 6120;
Tuesday-Sunday 12–6pm; Closed Mondays
South London Gallery
Free entry