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Chewing over urban art

John-HoughtonI spent part of Sunday afternoon on London’s Millennium Bridge, in the shadow of Tate Modern, in search of contemporary art.

And yet, instead of walking toward the vast gallery, I was going in the opposite direction. And instead of looking up at the iconic tower, I was looking determinedly at the floor.

I was looking for a tiny, flattened splatter of used chewing gum.

Discarded material that the artist Ben Wilson has transformed into mini-paintings, like the ones here that I snapped on the weekend.

All brightly coloured, delicately hand-painted, and remarkably detailed. Some redolent with meaning. I spotted one marking the anniversary of Tiananmen Square while another featured in this blog is a tribute, in Japanese, to the victims of the tsunami.

The four of us walked slowly from one end to the other, looking for one piece in particular that included the name of one of our group, Sareta.

This started to draw some attention.

People often think those of us who live in London are insensible to one another. That we’re rushing about, focused solely on our own journey, ignoring everyone and everything else.

Yet the opposite is the case. The reality of living in such proximity with so many others, all jostling for precious space, creates a sort of hyper-vigilance. A constant sensory horizon-scanning, no doubt heightened since 9/11 and the attacks on the tube in 2005.sareta

Why is that guy talking so loudly on his phone – about his divorce, of all things?’

Who does that bag on the platform belong to?’

Why is this bloody idiot in front of me walking so slowly?’

The last question occurred to me a few times on Sunday before the great chewing gum hunt. It occurs to me several times a day, every day. I walk quickly and get irrationally, insanely irritated by people strolling along or stopping every two minutes to check where they are going.

I once got caught behind a man on Whitechapel Road walking very slowly because he was watching a cookery programme on his iPad.

Before I turn this blog into (any more of) a rant, let’s get back to Sunday afternoon.

I had to restrain all my instincts in order to walk slowly and studiously. No doubt a few people were wondering ‘Why is this bloody idiot in front of me walking so slowly?’

As we did so, people looked to see what we were doing. They followed our eye-lines and saw, not porridgey-grey splodges, but bright colours and carefully arranged shapes.

chewinggumMore people noticed and started stopping to take a look, setting off a mini-chain reaction. A German tourist gave me a huge smile as she stood back up from photographing a piece that particularly delighted her husband.

A student-aged woman asked what we were doing. I explained, and she then told her friends, who joined in the hunt. Others asked them what they were up to, and they explained.

I was at the front of a chain of people methodically sweeping the bridge with their eyes, often pausing to take snaps of their favourites. A slow moving chew-chew train of people, chugging forward at a very leisurely pace. I, John P. Houghton, scourge of the casual stroller and dithering tourist, was in danger of slowing the foot traffic on the Millennium Bridge. Irony of ironies, hypocrisy of hypocrisies.

Thankfully, I found the chewing gum and we could call off the search.

‘Sareta’ I hollered, waving my friend to check out her name.

‘Did you find it?’ the student, whom I had met earlier, asked excitedly. ‘Yes!’ I replied with a huge smile on my face.

We chatted a bit more with the students, and they parted, determined to find out more about this strange new form of art. I looked back to see little knots of people, bending their knees like supplicants in a church, taking pictures.chewinggum3

A tiny piece of art, rendered from rubbish. Temporary graffiti that in a few weeks will have been washed away by the rain or eaten by a philistine pigeon, unaware it is feasting on a work of micro-genius.

And yet it opened my eyes to the craft that you can find anywhere in a big city. For a few moments, it brought total strangers together in a minor communal celebration of urban beauty.

Thanks to Sareta, thanks to the impromptu members of the search them, and thanks above all to Ben Wilson for bringing such delight to the streets of London and teaching me to slow down and appreciate what is around me.

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