Iain Sinclair / Rachel Lichtenstein

Rodinsky's Whitechapel

Whitechapel, London
02 June 1999 - 30 June 1999

Iain Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein's guided walks through London's East End revealed the roles history and place have played in creating the bizarre and compelling mythology of the Jewish recluse named David Rodinsky.

In 1969, he mysteriously disappeared from his attic room above the synagogue in Princelet Street, in the heart of the old Jewish East End. A decade later his room was reopened and its mess of papers, notebooks, writings in several languages and cabalistic diagrams began to capture the imagination of local people. Eventually, Rodinsky and his chambers came to assume mythical proportions.

As the granddaughter of Polish immigrants who settled in Princelet Street in the 1930s, writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein was immediately intrigued when, in 1990, she first heard of the synagogue. She secured a residency in the building and took over Rodinsky's role as self-appointed caretaker. She began to catalogue the objects left in his room, and she also started searching for people who had known him. Granta Books commissioned her to collaborate on a book about her findings with Iain Sinclair. It was titled Rodinsky's Room.

Working on this publication and walking the streets of Whitechapel, Lichtenstein built up a wealth of information about the area, and gradually the story of David Rodinsky began to interweave with her own history, her knowledge of this neighbourhood they had both inhabited. With Artangel, Sinclair and Lichtenstein wrote an artist's guidebook Rodinsky's Whitechapel which takes the reader on a walking tour, past sites and buildings that played an important role not only in Rodinsky's life, but also in Lichtenstein's own. The walk also highlights the last remnants of many important locations of the once vibrant, but now quickly vanishing Jewish East End.

Sinclair also took the Geographer's A to Z Atlas of London and Suburbs, an item found by Lichtenstein in Rodinsky's attic, and created walks interpreted from the markings and embellishments within the guide. These trails were filmed and relayed on strategically placed video monitors in and around Whitechapel forming the backdrop to a series of events devised by Sinclair throughout June 1999.

The final stop on Lichtenstein's walk is a stonemason on Osborn Street, A.Elfes Ltd. This is where a headstone was carved for the previously unmarked grave of David Rodinsky. Set and consecrated later in 1999, the stone was an unusual curiosity: the only permanent work ever commissioned by Artangel.


Image: A 1d London tram ticket pasted into a book filled with multicoloured writing, items found amongst Rodinsky's belongings. Photograph: Rachel Lichtenstein

Rodinsky's Room: an excerpt

The Princelet Street Synagogue by Rachel Lichetenstein
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Rodinsky's Room: an excerpt

Excerpt from The Princelet Street Synagogue by Rachel Lichetenstein.
The full essay was originally published in Rodinsky's Room by Rachel Linchtenstein and Iain Sinclair.
 


Number 19 seemed a most unlikely museum, with no plaque outside, and apparently derelict. I rang the bell anyway but there was no response. Gently, I pushed against the large wooden doors and, finding them open, stepped inside. The temperature change was extreme. I began to shiver and I put on the jacket that had been unnecessary in the heat of the summer day.

A single bulb was attempting to light up the dark-green wood-panelled corridor in which I found myself. When my eyes adjusted to the dim light I could make out a large red metal safe to my left, and behind it a locked door. To the right, worn stone steps led up to another floor. Stacked in the corner behind the entrance doors were boxes of empty beer bottles, their staleness adding to the odour of dampness and dust. I could hear muffled voices ahead, and a light seeped under the door at the end of the corridor. I moved to call out, but the words stuck in my throat. The atmosphere still retained the oppressiveness of a religious space; it seemed natural to speak in whispers. 

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Image: Detail of a page from one of Rodinsky's notebooks, written in red ink litterred with smudges resembling blood drops. Photograph: Rachel Lichtenstein

Press

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All over London, there exist neglected places and hermetic spaces: island territories cut off from the main swing of urban life the way the hidden chambers of the psyche are cut off from consciousness. —Marina Benjamin, Evening Standard, 4 June 1999

Selected Press

A decrepit Jew lives in a single room in Spitalfields, above a synagogue. One day he leaves his room. He never comes back. The room stays locked for over a decade; when it is opened in 1980, it vibrates with absence. Notebooks and diaries indicate that their keeper knew over a dozen languages, most of them dead. Cabbalistic diagrams taunt the uninitiated. A copy of the A-Z is marked with routes. Of walks taken, or of walks that are yet to be taken? Everything, apart from the thick layer of dust that has settled over the years, is as it was, only waiting for interpretation, for explanation. — Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, 18 March 2000

 

...what makes ''Rodinsky's Room'' so enthralling is that it works at several other levels. It is also the story of a personal, cultural and religious voyage that leads a half-Jewish Englishwoman to embrace Orthodox Judaism in Israel, to visit death camps in Poland and to delve into the tattered remnants of Jewish immigrant life in London. Adding another dimension, the book is written with Iain Sinclair, an English novelist and essayist who not only observes Lichtenstein in her obsessive search for Rodinsky but also provides valuable context through his rich knowledge of hidden London. Their collaboration — they write alternate chapters — works exceptionally well. — Alan Riding, The New York Times, 13 August 2000 

 

In contemporary British culture, the East End is a Kingdom of Narnia, which can be reached simply by catching the tube to Liverpool Street and walking to Brick Lane. From Peter Ackroyd’s seemingly illimitable readings of Hawksmoor churches and Jewish myths to what one critic called the ‘dark space’ inside the concrete shell of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), the East End is a mystery waiting for interpretation... Sinclair is both guru and satirist of the new mysticism that surrounds the East End, and the exploration of the David Rodinsky cult that he recently orchestrated for Artangel was a consummation of his black art. — Jonathan Jones, Frieze, Issue 48, September - October 1999

Rodinsky's headstone would be the only piece of permanent work Artangel had ever commissioned

By Rachel Lichtenstein
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Rodinsky's headstone would be the only piece of permanent work Artangel had ever commissioned

Rachel Lichtenstein
6 March 2002
 


In 1998 Artangel contacted me for their new series of commissions, 'INNERCity'. They knew about the book Rodinsky's Room I was writing in collaboration with lain Sinclair and we began discussions on a project based around this story. Over a number of months we devised an artist's guidebook called Rodinsky's Whitechapel. For me it was a fantasy project, working with people who encouraged and supported me to combine my skills and experience as a writer, artist, researcher and tour guide of the Jewish East End. I especially enjoyed working with the designer, Mark Diaper, who sensitively translated my ideas into a truly beautiful product. The resulting book, which fits neatly into the palm of your hand, is designed to take the reader on a personal tour inside the geography of the Rodinsky story. The map inside the front cover marks out a circular route that crosses paths with my own walks, my family history and the remnants of the Jewish East End. You visit places like Rossi's Café where Rodinsky played the spoons and my grandfather's former jewellery shop in New Road, now an abandoned Kebab house. The final stop on the tour is Elfes Stone Masons, one of the only functioning Jewish businesses still left on Brick Lane.

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Image:David Rondinsky's marble headstone, that Rachel Lichtenstein commissioned Elfes stonemasons to create, being laid in 1999. Photograph: Rachel Lichtenstein

The making of Rodinsky's Whitechapel

By Michael Morris
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The making of Rodinsky's Whitechapel

Michael Morris, June 2002


Artangel had explored ways of collaborating with filmmakers, sculptors, choreographers and composers but hadn't found a way of inviting a writer to imagine what happens when you put language on location. The series 'INNERCity' would focus on this area of work.

Frances Coady, then head of Granta Books, recommended I meet Rachel Lichtenstein who was preparing Rodinsky's Room with lain Sinclair about a legendary recluse who lived above a synagogue in Spitalfields, his attic room re-discovered after many years.

Talking to Rachel we came up with the idea of tracing Rodinsky's paths in and around Brick Lane. Rodinsky's Whitechapel, was a beautifully produced guidebook containing a map, a legend and a commentary.

You could stop off at the cafe where Rodinsky played the spoons, visit Mr Katz's string shop and see the site of the former Kosher Luncheon Club, finally arriving at Elfes Stone Masons where Rodinsky's headstone was displayed in the window. Rachel finally discovered Rodinsky's unmarked grave in Waltham Abbey. The headstone, consecrated as the final chapter of our project, remains the only permanent monument commissioned by Artangel.

Lichtenstein's walk ran alongside a series of Sunday excursions mapped out by lain Sinclair, which took their cue from markings in Rodinsky's personal copy of the London A-Z, left behind in his attic room on Princelet Street.


Image: A black-and-white portrait of Rodinsky, found amongst his belongings. Photograph: Rachel Lichtenstein

Impresarios of the imagination

By Iain Sinclair
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Impresarios of the imagination

Iain Sinclair
12 March 2002


Michael Morris was very confident, it was his area of expertise – accessing secret spaces, granting them fresh and unexpected narratives. Brokering tentative relationships between artists (ego, doubt, megalomaniacal expectations) and property owners, civil servants, politicians (suspicious, slippery, what's-in-it-for-us?). The former synagogue at 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields, defeated him. Defeated us all. It had its own inviolate agenda. Artangel understood the pitfalls, expected them, enjoyed them. The impossible was their starting point. The meeting like a conference of disputing mafiosi. The follow-up phone calls. The event. The backlash. Impresarios of the imagination haunt the purlieus of the city in direct competition with developers, retail estate pirates. They practice the same black arts. They are rivals. They operate like psychics; mediums tapping erased myths, searching out the room, the tunnel, the arch, the vault, the municipal swimming pool, still squatted by a legion of unoptioned ghosts. The thing that exists to be exploited.

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Image: Detail of a tattered red, white and blue London A-Z stuffed with loose pages of notes, an item found amongst Rodinsky's belongings. Photograph: Rachel Lichtenstein

Inner City

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Inner City

Inner City explored the interface of the city and the word in both its spoken and written forms. It will encourage writes and artists to excavate a range of urban places and contemplate the changing nature of city environments and the counterpoint between narrative and place; between language and location.

Writers and thinkers of all kinds — from architectural and social historians and urban geographers to scientists, philosophers, poets and novelists — have been invited to consider different aspects of the inner city, and work with us to define an appropriate form for the expression of their ideas, spoken or written, live or recorded.

A significant opportunity to speak to new audiences in new ways, Inner City builds on the current appetite for new thinking across art forms and relocates it in the many centers of the metropolis — in the places we think we know,  as well as the places that elude us.

Projects range from the re-invention of a traditional form of address (the lantern lecture; the walking tour) to pre-recorded audio guides for particular places by artists; the urban environment viewed as a historical network of personal experience, pathways and relocollections; an A-Z of the city's insides.

Surface Noise

The Art of Legislation

The Vertical Line

Rodinsky's Whitechapel

The Missing Voice (Case Study B) 

 

About Rachel Lichtenstein

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Rachel Lichtenstein

Rachel Lichtenstein was born in 1969 in Rochford, Essex. She studied at Sheffield University, now works as an artist, researcher and author and lives in London. Solo exhibitions include 'Forever Green', 19 Princelet Street, London, 1992, and 'Kirsch Family', Joseph's bookstore, London, 1999. Her book, Rodinsky's Room, was first published by Granta Books in 1999 and has since sold 25,000 copies worldwide and been published in five countries.

Rachel has since contributed writing to projects including Surround Me.
 


Images: Portrait of Rachel Lichtenstein taken in London.

About Iain Sinclair

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Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair was born in 1943 in Cardiff. He is a writer, poet, film maker, editor and playwright and lives in London. Sinclair attended Cheltenham College, London School of Film Technique, Brixton, London, Trinity College, Dublin and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. He published his early work, mainly poetry, through the Albion Village Press which he founded. His first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, 1987, won him critical acclaim and a wide audience. Other novels include Downriver, 1991 (which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 1992 Encore Award) andRadon's Daughters, 1994. His more recent projects include London Orbital (A Walk around the M25): a book and a television film in 2002 and Edge of the Orison, a psychogeographical reconstruction of a walk by poet John Clare.

Iain has contributed written pieces to projects including House alongside thie inclusion of several of his books in the Octagonal Libary as part of A Room for London.


Image: Portrait of Iain Sinclair. Photograph: Joy Gordon

Credits

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Who made this possible?

Credits

Comissioned by Artangel as part of Inner City, a series exploring the interface of the city and the word in its many forms. Inner City encouraged writers and artists to excavate a range of urban environments and to contemplate the chnaging nature of the city and the counterpoint between narrative and place, between language and location. Produced with assistance from the National Lottery through the A4E scheme administered by the Arts Council of England and and the support of Harry Handelsman. Funders and collaborators: Bloomberg and Whitechapel Gallery.



Artangel is generously supported by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels.


 

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