LONDON — Where exactly — and what exactly — is the Thamesmead Codex

It’s somewhere in Tate Modern, but most people, including the staff, don’t really seem to know. I tell whoever I happen to meet that it’s a work of art by an artist called Bob and Roberta Smith. Yes, an artist — singular — because Bob and Roberta was/were born Patrick Brill, but decided to expand into an identity that would encompass the masculine and the feminine. It’s on floor four of the Natalie Bell building, I know that much, I tell two attendants who are standing around on that floor. 

I know it’s on the fourth floor of this building, I tell my new friends, the attendants, because it says so online …. Then, for one of them at least, the sun begins to appear over the horizon. Ah yes, I think it’s along there, she says, pointing along the corridor close to where it meets a bridge …

She’s right, and it’s there for a very good reason, I soon discover. The Thamesmead Codex consists of 16 panels painted with words and a smattering of images, all neatly hung together on a corridor wall in groups of four. It faces the bridge that carries you over the Turbine Hall from the Natalie Bell building to the Blavatsky Building. So, it’s not in a gallery but at an intersection, rather as if it were usually on the move and had paused only to take a breath. That feels just right. 

What is it, though? According to the Latin Dictionary for Schools that lives on my desk in anticipation of the arrival of a moment such as this one, a Codex is a book or manuscript. The hand-painted words on these 16 panels are often tightly squeezed up together, and sometimes of varying sizes, depending upon the emotional pressure under which they find themselves. 

Bob and Roberta Smith: Thamesmead Codex at Tate Modern, detail (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

But why Thamesmead? What is Thamesmead? Thamesmead is a smallish overspill town on former marshland, on the periphery of London — just head south and then east a bit, and eventually you’ll find yourself there. It’s what could even be called a NEW TOWN. It was created from nothing, and so when it emerged into being, not without a deal of gestatory pain, it was in pursuit of its own identity. What would it be? Who would live there? And how rooted would those people manage to feel? 

The whole thing amounts to a kind of town diary or testament, voices speaking over each other, voices speaking simultaneously, about their experiences of surviving through lockdown, seeing hope in the form of greenness through the window. In all the fizzy urgency of its randomness, it reads like a pile up of traffic. Inwardness — “my youth was full of inexactitude” — and, to counter that, outwardness bleed into confessional storytelling and wide-ranging reverie: the coal miner’s daughter, brought up in Wales, who stares out at amazing sunsets and thinks of  her years lived in Africa, of patterns and color … 

That’s what the words in these panels are all about. They are melded, mashed up, meshed together fragments of the many human stories told to Bob and Roberta about the experience of living in Thamesmead — tales of hope, anxiety, displacement, and rootedness. Tales of reverie. Tales in pursuit of a rural Eden, which some of them partly find. The voices kind of jangle together — rather like voices on the move in a corridor such as this. Changes in color and size are equivalent to the raising of a voice in anger or wonderment, the sudden flaring up of a flame of feeling. Sometimes the colors blur into each other, as if what is being said has retreated into a kind of soft focus blur of sentiment. It’s all rather pleasing to get lost in the book — pardon, the Codex — of Thamesmead. 

Excuse the Latin, but this is serious stuff. 

Bob and Roberta Smith: Thamesmead Codex at Tate Modern, detail (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

Bob and Roberta Smith: Thamesmead Codex continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through May 7. The exhibition was organized by Tate Modern and Peabody housing association.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...