Towers of Babel 2005 – 2024

Towers of Babel – Installation images >

The ‘Tower of Babel’ is a compelling motif with which to portray a city from a contemporary perspective and is a recurring theme in Allchurch’s work. The construction allows for multiple viewpoints and layers of history to be represented within a single structure. 

Her latest Babel artwork, Towers of Babel: Hong Kong (2024) launched with Karin Weber Gallery at Hong Kong’s Art Central in March 2024.

The composition of this piece once again takes inspiration from the English architectural visualiser Joseph Gandy’s 1836 Comparative Characteristics of Thirteen Selected Styles of Architecture, a survey of different cultural and historical architectural styles stacked in layered elevation.

In her re-imagining for the territory of Hong Kong today, Allchurch presents three soaring towers cast in the golden hour light before dusk, placed in front of a characteristically Hong Kong mountainscape, with the towers of Shenzhen rising hazily in the distance.

On the lower tiers, the hustle and bustle of everyday Hong Kong life is depicted, with traditional commercial shops, street hawkers and restaurants jostling with trendy food outlets and retail gentrification. Whilst the outer towers show a mixture of residential architecture, including public housing and high-end speculative development, the central tower displays examples of traditional colonial and Cantonese style architecture from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Stacked above, designer retail and luxury hotel accommodation are set around a ‘dragon gate’ for good Feng Shui, atop of which (the more) monolithic and grandiose corporate architecture towers ever skywards.

Distributed around the scene are the accoutrements of tourism, leisure and regeneration in this depiction of a re-emerging Hong Kong repositioning itself following the Covid-19 pandemic and celebrating its unique historical and geographical identity, its verticality, proximity to – and co-existence with – nature, whilst also acknowledging the increasing connectivity with Mainland China.

Tower of London (after Bruegel) 2005, the first in the series, recreates Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (1563, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna) from photographs of London. Bruegel’s image mocks those who, according to the Old Testament, tried to reach God by building a tower to the heavens and were then divinely punished and made to speak in different tongues. Just as Bruegel’s painting was a response to religious unease in his times, so Allchurch’s lightbox explores the religious and cultural diversity of the capital prevailing despite threats to its cohesion in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings of 2005. 

Ten years later Allchurch revisited the theme in Babel London (after Bruegel) 2015. This later work reflects upon the property boom engulfing the capital and can be seen as both a celebration of and warning about architectural hubris. A perpetual ‘work in progress’, the city is depicted as a monumental building site. Shiny new towers on London’s skyline are shown protected by a barricade of hoardings and CCTV surveillance, making them unobtainable to all but a few. As the graffiti poster proclaims, many Londoners are feeling that the lifestyle they ordered is indeed ‘currently out of stock’. We are left questioning who exactly will benefit from the ‘greener future’ promised by the property developers? Who will be squeezed out in the process and at what cost to the diversity of London?

Oslo Story 2016 was commissioned by the Municipality of Oslo for a refurbished kindergarten in the Haugenstua district of the city. Inspired by the Babel theme, this large-scale capriccio presents the Norwegian capital as an island, constructed from well-known local buildings, seen from the vantage point of a wooded landscape.

Babel Britain (after Verhaecht) 2017, once again adopts the Tower of Babel theme, but this time as a comment on the state of Britain in its entirety. Based upon Tobias Verhaecht’s (1561-1631) large-scale painting of the ‘Tower of Babel’, displayed at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, this recreation depicts an increasingly divided country, on the cusp of Brexit, and at a pivotal moment in its history. Construction of this colossal tower appears unstoppable, despite the storms clouds gathering overhead, and the shadow cast by the disaster of Grenfell Tower, a tragic event which occurred while Allchurch was working on the piece. 

As with all her works, Babel Britain is peppered with topical markers spotted in the environment: signage, graffiti, property developers’ advertising hyperbole, street art, and protest banners  – all of which help to reinforce a message of political and economic uncertainty, as well as growing inequality of wealth.

In 2017, Allchurch began an exciting new collaboration with Karin Weber Gallery in Hong Kong. With an award from the Arts Council England / British Council Artists’ International Development Fund, she visited Hong Kong for the first time to collate a vast image library of the territory. Meetings and guided tours with local artists and academics gave invaluable insight into the challenges facing Hong Kong residents: lack of space, inequality of wealth, housing shortage, and pollution. In February 2018 Babel Britain (after Verhaecht) was a Finalist in the Columbia Threadneedle Prize, and also won the Visitors’ Choice Award.

Loosely inspired by the 1595 ‘Tower of Babel’ by Flemish painter Lucas van Valkenborch, the resulting image, Babel Hong Kong 2018, also draws strongly from Chinese painting traditions in its multiple perspectives and meandering paths which guide the viewer through an unabashedly urban cityscape leading to misty mountain ranges in the distance. Shopping malls, temples, public housing, land reclamation, construction sites and congested expressways jostle for position on the lower tiers, whilst big corporations and the well-heeled seemingly rise above the pollution, and the clouds.

Sourced from a photo tour around England in 2022, Towers of Babel (after Gandy) recreates Joseph Gandy’s pen, ink and watercolour painting ‘Comparative Characteristics of Thirteen Selected Styles of Architecture’ (1836), sometimes referred to as his ‘Tower of Babel’.

Gandy’s composition depicts three towering monuments, with each ‘strata’ presenting a different architectural style, culturally and historically. The central tower builds up from Babylonian foundations, to Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Gothic designs. The surrounding landscape and flanking towers combine prehistoric stone circles and monoliths, with examples of Medieval, Persian, South Asian and Chinese architecture.

In her photographic homage Allchurch has sought to bring the narrative up to date. Her central tower combines examples of Victorian Egyptian style architecture, with C20th Art Deco on the lower tier, followed by layers of Palladian, Neo-Classical and Gothic Revivalist architecture. The flanking elevations assemble Roman ruins, Medieval, Greek Revivalist, Indo-Gothic, and the Chinoiserie style, with examples of late C20th Postmodern architecture at the apex, whose stylistic forms might appear familiar to Gandy. Affixed throughout the structure are the ubiquitous security systems of modern life, and in the background, contemporary buildings and construction work are shown rising up through clouds and smoke.

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