Russell West - I suppose it must have been about 1987, while working as a graphic artist in London, that I stumbled across an image of the Kowloon walled city in a magazine. It looked to me as if a high rise town had been crushed into a brick by a giant machine. I was mesmerised. Tens of thousands of people – at its peak I believe it was as many as 33,000 – had crammed themselves into an area the size of two football pitches, where they lived and worked. I settled in Hong Kong in 1991 and I visited the city many times before it was demolished by ball and chain in 1993. As the huge concrete ball was raised and dropped on the city at a height of about fourteen stories, the inner honeycomb of rooms and streets was revealed.
There was an impossibly complex labyrinth riddled with electric wires and plumbing systems. The city had been built by its inhabitants for their needs without a town planner or architect involved. It occurred to me that I was looking at a genuine self-regulating ‘man nest’. I find the complexity and patterns found in densely populated slums fascinating; I believe there is much to be learned from the layouts and mend-and-make-do technologies of the people that dwell within them. For example, there is a phenomenon known as a ‘desire line’ where unofficial paths emerge as people choose the quickest route in a municipal park, or through a flowerbed in a supermarket car park, rather than the one laid down for them by town planners.
Slum dwellings are constructed in much the same way, guided by practicality rather than aesthetics, evolving organically. Doors and windows are placed where people need them, rather than where they should be. Through photography, drawings and sculpture I have attempted many times over the years to recreate what I first saw in Kowloon’s walled city, and later in India, the Philippines, and other parts of the world. The process I’m using at the moment is the best way I have found to represent what I saw in these slum neighbourhoods.
I use paint to produce solid planes of colour, to represent walls or signage. Once in place, the paint continues to move, dribbling serendipitously downward until it dries. It amuses me to think that at the end of every day, after locking up my studio for the night, my paintings continue to build themselves on their own in the dark in full colour, creating their desire lines.