Lenin’s Urn

On Tavistock Place there’s a stretch of Victorian terraced housing that is now (mostly) a string of hotels and B&B’s. You might wonder if any of those budget travellers, while trundling their suitcases up from Euston Station look up to see the blue plaque on no. 36. It reads “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin 1870-1921, Founder of the USSR, Lived here in 1908”. Lenin stayed here at the beginning of his second period of exile from Russia. Tavistock Place a convenient base for his research he at the British Museum while writing his seminal text ‘Materialism and Empirio-criticism’ (published 1909)

This part of Tavistock Place is a typical London terrace. Each house has a basement area to the street front. Around these are cast iron railings painted black gloss. Painted many times it seems. Each layer building up on the last, each lick of paint shrouding the metal form in another layer.

Over time – and who knows quite how much time – the decorative details of the the railings have been gradually blurred. What we see now are these strange abstractions of varying degrees, each urn displaying its history of bumps and repair, of coat after coat until they become distinct shapes developing their own character. These are objects created over time, pieces of urban fabric that, like tree rings, tell their own story of their presence in the city.

In their vagueness, in their sense of swathed form we might feel some vague-shaped ghost of Lenin’s presence, somewhere down amongst their base coat. Talk about dialectical materialism, which, as Lenin explained in the very book he was writing during his stay at Tavistock Place

“ … insists on the approximate relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another, that from our point of view [may be] apparently irreconcilable with it, and so forth.”

[As a side note, wouldn’t these make fabulous objects themselves? Imagine scaled up representations of them, these wonky, sloughed forms of something vaguely recognisable, gloss black like an oil slick. Anyone fancy commissioning them?]

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