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Waveform

By Leo Fitzmaurice

Waveform, 2023

Artist Leo Fitzmaurice has been commissioned by Tideway to create an artwork in bronze and steel, for the site at Chambers Wharf 

The permanent Tideway commissions respond to the site-specific narratives set out in the Tideway Heritage Interpretation Strategy. The cultural meander for the East section is – ‘The Shipping Parishes: Gateway to the world’. Within this heading, the site-specific narrative for Chambers Wharf relates to Britain’s expanding colonial and mercantile interests from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with specific reference to the triangular slave trade and the imported sugar which dominated both manufacturing in Bermondsey [known as ‘Biscuit Town’] and its architecture, marked by refineries and commercial riverside wharves and warehouses to service the supply chain. Ceramic sugar cone moulds were amongst the finds on site during the project’s archaeological investigations.

Leo, has responded to the site-specific narrative about global movements of goods and people through a semi-abstract sculptural piece, ‘Waveform’ that can accommodate and stimulate many open-ended readings around the idea of a wave.

Physically, the work references historic nautical structures and objects, in particular the ship’s bell, both as an object and an iconic nautical sound. The artist is interested in the range of waveforms associated with ship’s bells, which strongly relate to the outline of a bell itself. By rotating this outline through 180 degrees in space, the artist has started to visualise this sound-waveform as an object.

The Bermondsey neighbourhood has been shaped by a continuing international influx of people – not just the massive influence from slavery, but migrations due to war, famine and hardship, often connected in some way to the spread of the British Empire. Through his research Leo saw this demographic process like a returning wave, or echo, mirroring the expansion of the British Empire.

A fundamental characteristic of this global movement is that many individuals moved to the area by ship, with little else than the clothes they were wearing. Inevitably, other elements of their culture became more important: stories, music and food contributed to an identity and history that could be retained when everything else had gone. In a way this is a culture, or mix of cultures, typified by its lack of a physical presence – for the artist, a free trade of culture, rather than objects.

The artist explored the impact of this phenomenon on London’s popular culture and particularly its music; from soul, blues, gospel and jazz drawing on the influences of African slaves, to house, techno and grime. Visualisations of sound through graphic equalisers and other outputs also led to waveforms.

The waveform piece therefore combines the site’s maritime history with the area’s contemporary culture, where the wave – not an object, but a moving energy – can be interpreted as the flow and development of ideas and culture moving through the medium of the port city and its river.

The work is nuanced and open-ended and allows for freedom of interpretation by many groups from different backgrounds. It is thought-provoking and capable of revealing hidden stories and meanings, deepening people’s understanding and expanding horizons. It fulfils the aspirations of the HIS to link history with cultural values of relevance today.

The piece takes the form of a cast bronze bell-like form, reminiscent of a ship’s bell and of soundwave shapes, approximately 500mm in diameter, fixed to a bespoke white-painted steel ‘mast’ some 4m high which takes its cue from typical nautical structures. The public realm scheme will not be completed under the project but as part of a future residential development by others

The Artwork