Artists have historically taken an opportunistic approach to industrial decline. Perhaps the most famous example is Donald Judd, who in 1968 moved into a derelict industrial building at 101 Spring Street in SoHo, New York, sparking a craze for what estate agents now like to call ‘loft-style living’. Closer to home, Damien Hirst staged Freeze in a Docklands warehouse in 1988, and during the seventies Butler’s Wharf, a disused wharf and warehouse complex further down the Thames from Tate Modern, housed a thriving community of artists and filmmakers, Derek Jarman among them. The opening of Tate Modern, however, marked a considerable shift in that history. It was the moment when the pioneering, artist-led migrations of the 1970s developed into something much larger and more corporate, but also more retrospective – the active practice of occupying industrial spaces in order to use them as cheap studios shifted into displaying artworks. Artists are often criticised for the role they play in gentrifying previously undesirable (or ‘authentic’) areas, but they always get turfed out when the yuppies arrive. Butler’s Wharf was converted into luxury flats during the eighties; Tate Modern, by contrast, is the sixth most visited art museum in the world, with a major new extension set to open in 2016. The institution is here to stay.
I arrive at Gate 7 and give Luke a call. A moment later he appears, cycling through the rubble and weeds to unlock the heavy padlock and let me through. The brambles that flourish in this dusty, pebble-shot soil give the grounds a strangely bucolic air, and give a sense that this concrete landscape is reverting to nature: the ground is riddled with screws, tubes, sheet metal, rusting bolts, but the blackberries are so fat with juice they stain my fingers when I pick them. We pass into the shadow of Millennium Mills. It packs a heft that modern structures, with their brittle, reflective claddings and transparent curtain walls, entirely lack. The mill’s windows are like small, neat caves carved into the white rock of a cliff face. In an earlier piece for The White Review about this much-maligned stretch of London’s Docklands, I talked about how Derek Jarman used the building as a filming location in The Last of England, in which the structure formed the centrepiece of an apocalyptic vision of an empire in decline. I never actually made it inside the heavily guarded grounds, however, and so it’s with a certain reverence that I find myself observing it now. The closest I ever got was the slatted fence that marks the perimeter of the grounds.