Cities are shaped as much by what is not present, what does not persist, as what does. The traces and absences. The missing links and voids. About history and memory we might say something similar. Disappearance frames appearance, giving shape to what we can recover, often in startling ways.
The bombing of London in the Second World War transformed the place in a matter of months. It also transformed perceptions. The photographer Nigel Henderson recalled: “Surrealism was everywhere in a sense. Houses chopped by bombs while ladies were still sitting on the lavatory, the rest of the house gone but the wallpaper and fires still burning in the grate. Who can hold a candle to that kind of real life Surrealism?” Similarly, the film editor Dai Vaughan noted: “In a bombed hospital, an umbrella might well encounter a sewing machine on a dissecting table. If the goal of surrealism was 'changer la vie', life was now changing before everyone’s eyes… generating imagery at a pace which left the artist no need to trawl his or her subconscious for symbols of flux and transcendence. Surrealism and the documentary imperative were united.”
To the trained eye London is still full of those strange shocks. Time has barely softened them. We don’t use the term ‘surreal’ much any more. It’s either too art historical, or debased by the mass media. But those who intuit the essence of the surreal know it cannot be contained, nor consigned to history. It resurfaces just where and when you least expect. Thom and Beth Atkinson’s documents of London’s missing buildings seem to me surreal in the truest and most profound way.