by Jerry ElengicalMar 10, 2023
"Considering cities as people, London also tells us about itself in the first person. I think it's a more direct and fun way to get in touch with the metropolis, its personality and its secrets, just as if you were talking to a friend," says the Berlin-based Italian artist Carlo Stanga as I tried picking his mind to know what inspired his ongoing showcase at Galleria Bonvini in Milan. The exhibition titled London Calling presents a series of meticulous drawings and illustrations, each artwork put together as a multilayered theatrical scene observing the spirit of the British city. A close look at Stanga’s compositions comprising buildings, and urban spaces—be it landmarks or decrepit pockets, an imposing spectacle or a prosaic encounter—one discovers things that often go unnoticed, or doesn’t show up in plain sight. The idea of these drawings for him, as he tells STIR, is to express the atmosphere and identity of what shapes London’s unrepeatability.
Intrigued to know more, I connected with him on an email conversation.
Zohra Khan: What is it about London that fascinates you?
Carlo Stanga: What inspires me most about London is the contrast between tradition and contemporaneity. These two opposing characteristics generate a positive tension that pervades many aspects: architecture, politics, fashion, design, society and the mentality of the inhabitants. The atmosphere that you breathe in London is permeated by this very dialogue that resolves itself in a well-balanced equilibrium between conservative vision, guardian of the past, and impetus towards the future. Such a dialectic generates extremes and eccentric phenomena, not alien to the typical British humour, in every sphere.
Drawing London, in other words observing it in depth, allows me to confront an incredible variety of architectural styles and contrasts that stimulate curiosity and creativity. So it was really exciting to portray the life of this unique metropolis to produce the book I am London, published by Moleskine in 2017.
Zohra: When did you first visit the city? Do you recall a fond memory from that time?
Carlo: I first visited London 30 years ago. I stayed for the whole month of August in the student house of the Polytechnic of Central London. I remember that it was a very tall building on Marylebone Road, on the edge of Regent's Park. From the window of my room, my gaze sweeped over the city, from the park to the BT Tower, so every morning London bid me good morning, presenting itself in all its multifaceted and attractive reality. I couldn't wait to get out and experience it! So my encounter with London went against the stereotypes that portray it as grey, foggy and rainy, revealing to me a colourful and warm metropolis, almost always 30 degrees in that particular summer, and to be experienced outdoors. A holiday I will never forget. It was a beautiful encounter with London.
Zohra: What's the idea behind the name of the book I am London, as well as the exhibition, London Calling?
Carlo: Thank you for this question, it allows me to deepen the meaning of the book itself. The title I am London refers to the fact that in my book the city speaks for itself. In fact, considering cities as people, London also tells us about itself in the first person. I think it's a more direct and fun way to get in touch with the metropolis, its personality and its secrets, just as if you were talking to a friend. When I sketch a city, my aim is to understand it deeply by observing its streets and daily life, speaking with the inhabitants and the people who work in this town, looking on the way they see the city itself. I also read many books about it; I watch movies where the urban reality is the protagonist. At the end of this long process of discovering the city’s personality, I can focus on its strongest features, both aesthetic and psychological, so finally the city looks to me just like a familiar person. We use to get in touch with people, more than with objects, so this way to figure out an urban identity in a human metaphor, makes everything easier. I am London, like my other books published by Moleskine, are not to be considered like touristic guides, there are already millions, but it is rather a way to focus on the unique features of this place, expressing the atmosphere and identity that shape its unrepeatability.
As for the title of my solo show, with Roberto Di Puma and Maria Sebregondi, curators of the exhibition at the Galleria Bonvini 1909, in Milan, we have chosen London Calling, a phrase used in many different contexts. Originally it appeared in BBC reports that were broadcasted during the World War II, supporting of course the fight against Nazis. Later, in 1979, London Calling was amplified by the homonymous song by the British band the Clash, focusing on hard problems like social displacement, unemployment, racial conflict, and so on. In our case, today, we use it as a recognisable quote about London, precisely to underline the character of this city as an alive place of contrast, new and traditional culture, in a word a boiling laboratory that continuously generates debates, curiosity, and creativity. From all this, it comes the irresistible attraction that this metropolis has always expressed. She calls and we answer.
Zohra: Could you talk about some of the places in London that you have documented in your sketches?Carlo: I depicted several different places in my pencil/ink sketches and colourful illustrations. There are so many and, as I mentioned, in a kind of harmonious contrast. I can choose three, among them, avoiding the obvious touristic spots.
The spire of Saint Bride in Fleet Street is the tallest, after Saint Paul’s Dome, of the churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren when the city was being rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. It’s said that the multilayered tapering structure inspired the baker Thomas Rich, in 1703, to invent the wedding cake!
Another place I loved to illustrate is the Battersea Power Station, because of its iconic shape and the industrial and very metropolitan environment in which it is immersed. The giant building looks like an upside-down table and started to be known worldwide when it appeared on the cover of album Animals by Pink Floyd.
I have always found its four fluted chimneys elegant, evoking, as they do, classical columns. I depicted this architecture in 2016, when the great Battersea renovation project was still a huge construction site. Nowadays the project is finished and in one of those chimneys/columns there is a glass lift bringing the visitors to the top in order to admire the wonderful view!
Another very interesting building to sketch was the Russell Hotel, in Bloomsbury, with a bizarre architectural structure that resembles a cluster of houses in the Dutch style. I drew it like if it was a big ship cruising in the ocean. In fact, the architect Charles Fitzroy Doll, who built it, also designed the interior of the Russell Hotel as well as of the Titanic. Both the restaurants, in the ship and in this building, were identical.
Zohra: Which is your favourite sketch from the exhibition?
Carlo: I love these sketches because they recall to me the physical feeling of observing the city and seeing the image appearing on the piece of paper. It is always magical for me. Sometimes I am listening to some music in my headphones and when, even years later, I look at that particular sketch again, I always remember that specific music and vice versa.
If I have to choose one, among these drawings, it would be the alley in Southwark, around the so called Shad Thames area, where industrial architecture of old factories and harbour buildings tell us about the time when London created and boosted the industrial revolution that, in a few, would have conquested the whole world. So, a very Londoner place in every sense.
Zohra: How do you envision people’s engagement with this exhibition? Is there a comment or an experience shared by a visitor that intrigued you?
Carlo: It is always a great pleasure to observe the reactions of visitors, to listen to their comments and interpretations, that most of the time really surprise me. I like to lead people into “my” London and see what they can discover in it, just like an enthusiastic sightseeing walk. Since my drawings are full of details and tales about the city, every visit looks like a little adventure, so visitors discuss about many things and I like to see the satisfaction, curiosity and surprise in their eyes, like when, by looking at the windows of a building in Soho, a visitor discovered Francis Bacon.
Among the several questions of people, one of the most frequent is concerning the technique I use and I developed on myself, matching together many things I learned from Bruno Munari, as well as from my passion for the cinema and the scenography.
Basically, my technique is divided in two steps. The first is analog, when I draw many different details, buildings and people on different small pieces of paper. The second is digital, when I scan the numerous ink and pencil drawings and process them in software like Photoshop so to set up a multi-layered theatrical scene, with, for example, an architectural background and the stage with the actors. Practically, one of my illustrationsis the combination of many drawings used just like the layer that I colour, move and illuminate as I need to. After all the city itself is a very complex phenomenon that you can consider to be made and readable on many many layers, so the perfect technic to show an urban reality.
Name: London Calling
Location: Galleria Bonvini, Milan
Curators: Roberto Di Puma and Maria Sebregondi
Artist: Carlo Stanga
Production, Text and Image Editing: Luca Mariani, Allegra Martin and LudovicaHolz
London Calling is on view at the Galleria Bonvini in Milan till June 29, 2023.