A grubby twilight blue wheely suitcase, which has seen better days and many holidays, makes a tortuous clacking sound as it is dragged along on its two remaining ‘good wheels’.
Shiny silver Volkswagen Golfs, funereal jet-black Range Rovers, a metallic grey Honda Civic and a Ferrari in a blue hue, which is reminiscent of the depths of the ocean, roar along the street.
Occasionally the oppressive growl of their petrol-fuelled engines is forced to an abrupt stop by the piercing high-pitched beep of the pedestrian crossing which lets people know they can cross the road as they clutch their flat whites and lattes from Gail’s Bakery. Then they inquisitively peer into the window of the estate agent, hoping to gather insight into whether their homes have gone up in value.
And motorcyclists wearing shocking pink and banana yellow-coloured helmets rev their engines while passing the train station to speed past the other traffic.
This is the scene in Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Rise, North London, where there is everything but the silence artist Lauren Baker encountered during a 10-day silent retreat in Mexico, where she envisaged the works for her solo show Ten Days of Silence.
With all technology banned, there was none of the noise that we fill our lives with as we battle with the constant need to always be seen to be doing something.
Stepping away from the bustling street into the relative calm of Baker’s show in the 99 Projects gallery it isn’t possible to truly find the same level of silence as she achieved in Mexico.
The clickety-click sound of the keys on a computer keyboard, as the gallery assistant types, pierces the air and reminds visitors about the ever-present technology in our lives.
And the cacophony of noise from the busy street outside occasionally interrupts the tranquillity of the gallery space when a visitor opens the door and prepares to go back into the outside world.
But after taking a moment to readjust and set the external noise aside, I’m able to take in the calming and sometimes puzzling nature of the works, which Baker says reflect her inner journey during her silent retreat, with the highs and lows she experienced.
The multi-disciplinary artist is best known for her bold neon creations which are statements in her own handwriting and have lit up the streets of Chelsea, Westminster, and Croydon in recent years.
But for Ten Days of Silence there is an absence of words in the neons, mosaics, canvases and metal sculptures, and exist alongside only to guide the viewer, with titles and statements from the artist.
They are even absent in a series of artworks which represent the letters she wrote while on her silent retreat, during breaks from meditating.
In the show the ‘letters’ are not works on paper, instead they are made of threads stitched into canvas in patterns which look like soundwaves.
And the ‘letters’ have varying degrees of fragility, depending on who or what they are addressed to.
Using glistening copper thread which bursts out of the speckled grey canvas like sunbeams, only Letter to the Sun (2022) seems rugged enough to withstand the passage of time.
In comparison, there is a fragility in Baker’s choice to use cornflower blue thread in Letter to My Future Lovers (2022) which, as well as blowing in the summery breeze, is tied up and resting on a ledge, as if she is nervous and cannot fully express what she wants to say.
Letter to a Friend (2022) has a similar feeling of fragility as the snowy white mohair yarn tumbles down from the stormy grey sky coloured canvas.
Baker says the letters were never meant to be sent and the energy of the writing was enough to express and let go.
But I’m left questioning whether the patterns of the soundwaves on the canvases are purely abstract or whether they could be somehow decoded into words by replicating the sounds with a sonograph machine. And are the soundwaves made up of sounds Baker could hear inside her mind during her silent retreat or externally?
It is easier to comprehend what is going on in the artworks where Baker plays with her more familiar mediums of neon, mosaic, and diamond dust.
And I can imagine that if the artworks hadn’t been conceived during her silent retreat that the title of one of the most stunning pieces in the show – There is a Crack in Everything, That’s How the Light gets in (2022) – would have been turned into a neon word sculpture in its own right.
The large, cracked shards of chalky white glass in the centre of the piece remind me of rocks on a beach, slowly decreasing in size as they get closer to the energetic brushstrokes of thick paint, which resembles the white furious froth of rapids. It’s almost like these smaller shards are being pushed upstream and pushed to the edge, where the light gets in.
Holding the piece together is a bright almost-complete circle of white neon light which straddles both sections of the artwork.
The almost-completeness of the circle makes me think that if this was envisaged when Baker was meditating, is this a comment on how everyone’s perception is different so nothing can be a true reality?
Also tackling questions about time and reality is a piece nearby in the gallery called Slowing Down Time (2022).
A gentle jagged white neon light illuminates the mostly chalky white creation where shards of chalky white glass slowly seem to be trickling on to the bottom, like an egg timer. But here, instead of being like soft sand, the fragments appear brittle but could also cut skin. This is coupled with the rocky white sides of the piece which seem almost otherworldly, reminiscent of a spiritual adventure to a non-Earth moon.
It isn’t truly possible for anyone else to get a true sense of what Baker was feeling during her silent meditation. But I feel the artwork is one of two in the show where the viewer will get closest to being able to understand, as it seems to be a comment about the fragility of life and time.
The other is the astoundingly beautiful Kissing of the Sun and the Moon (2022), where peachy oranges, pale rose pinks and fiery yellows form a halo around the craggy Moon which sparkles with diamond dust. It is reminiscent of the moment where you’re on your way home from a night out and your elation about the events of the evening is lifted even further when you see the sun rise overhead behind the dusky glow of the Moon.
Or, if you’re beyond that age, it will bring back happy memories of a younger time and remind you that it’s important to not only keep ensuring you have fun experiences as you grow older but about the power that both sun and moonlight can have on your body.
If this was a show where Baker was trying to get the audience to fully understand her experiences when she was on the silent retreat in Mexico, then it would not have worked.
But I don’t believe this was her intention. Instead, she is projecting the calmness of her meditation and giving people a sense of peace where, during the time spent looking at the artworks, the mind stops racing and blocks out external noise. Viewers are then free to contemplate both how they would cope during a retreat and how they are or aren’t coping with the stresses of modern life.
And afterwards, as I open the gallery door and confront the noise of the busy street on a muggy Saturday afternoon, I’m more aware of how stressful the modern life we take for granted can be.
But also, thankfully, as the piercing beep of the pedestrian crossing sounds, I’m also filled with a sense of inner calm.
This review was produced as my final project for an art writing course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and sadly the show finished a few weeks ago.
But there is a ‘virtual tour’ of the exhibition you can go on and you can also check out Lauren Baker’s artwork on her website.
Stay safe for another week!