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Keith Piper: The Perfect City (2007), 12 mins, Vimeo

by Mary Fletcher in Cornwall

Still from ‘The Perfect City’.

This video work was first shown as a two-screen installation in PM Gallery London, funded by Film London. The version on Vimeo is a compelling short narrative by the artist with a complex series of images. There is the paper model of the design he is making of an archetypal city. There are shots of people in London, of police, of beautiful scripts in different languages, of fire and water, of the Tower of Babel in past art, and of maps. The sound includes quietly sonorous menacing music and a ticking clock.
Piper speaks of the “memory of drowning” – floods – the refuge Tower of Babel that he says challenged God. Aptly for our time of Coronavirus there is a section on contamination, pandemics, the use of infected bodies as weapons, of smallpox inflicted on Native Americans. What Piper calls “the memory of amputation” shows boundaries between areas of wealth and poverty. This is followed by cleansing, regulation, surveillance; the words are spoken calmly with the disquieting soundtrack behind them.
Finally, there is burning, the destruction by God of Sodom and Gomorrah, his angels having failed to find 10 pious people. Fires are mentioned that destroyed St Pierre in Martinique, and in Plymouth in Montserrat, both in the 20th century, and before that the Fire of London, 1666, that ended the Plague. Piper says that God seems to have a fondness for fire.
It ends with Piper reciting that God gave Noah the rainbow sign – still a symbol of hope, as we have seen recently, putting rainbows in our windows in lockdown – but “it won’t be water but fire next time”. I don’t know if Piper believes in God or simply finds the Biblical stories suitably apocalyptic. It’s not a narrative with a clear plot, but what is clear is that he expects the worst.
Keith Piper, born 1960 in Malta but brought up and living in Britain as a black artist, part of a group called the BLK art group, has done a great deal of work, exhibited widely, and teaches at Middlesex University.
I loved his work that I saw in Derby about how everyone has moved from one place to another, everyone’s family has been migrants for personal betterment or to escape something. This was done very cleverly by inviting visitors to answer a questionnaire which was projected on the wall to reveal every person as a migrant.

Still from ‘The Perfect City’.

He has done work about slavery – the Lost Vitrines that were installed in the V&A to bring a new awareness about the Georgian exhibits and that era. In 2017 his Unearthing the Banker’s Bones used fiction, history painting and video to make a complicated show about the evils of class and race discrimination.
Keith Piper is not an artist to repeat a signature piece. His work tackles serious and political themes in a variety of media. It’s often complicated and requires time to absorb. I think he is saying important things in imaginative and powerful ways. Somehow this doesn’t make him well known but he keeps at it with a controlled passion.

Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020

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