On Milk Street

by Rachel Lichtenstein
2 November 2010

Last Sunday, a few hours before the tube strike began, I made my way, through deserted streets, to Milk Street; a nondescript, urban passageway in the financial district, circled on my Artangel map as the site of Lachrimae.

As the rain came down in heavy sheets, I sheltered from the downpour in the porch of an office block at the junction with Russia Row and listened. The quality of the sound was so sharp, so three dimensional, it became almost sculptural. The sky; a thick, dark grey mass of cloud, cast itself back in the wet pavement below. The beautiful instrumental music moved around the alley, reflecting off the deep blue glass windows of the building opposite, vibrating puddles on the ground, at moments disappearing, as if it had been sucked into the heavy concrete pillars or thick ancient stone of the surrounding architecture.

The only other discernible noise I could hear, in that part of the abandoned city, was the constant dripping of water. Tarkovsky’s work came to mind; Nostalgia, Solaris,Mirror. Meditations on ideas of melancholy, along with a yearning for another place, another time - images of empty landscapes, derelict buildings, an elderly man standing alone in the rain, dreaming of home, beside a body of water. Time shifted. I entered a portal moment. A different view of the city became temporarily revealed.

In 2001, archeologists from the Museum of London excavated a mikveh in Milk Street; a Jewish ritual bath, the oldest ever found in the U.K. This medieval subterranean pool, carved into the ground, would have been filled with natural rain water and used by orthodox Jewish women during acts of ritual purity, as they immersed themselves naked in the holy waters.

The story of the river seeps into the place, which is named, directly after the liquid produce sold there when nearby Cheapside operated as London’s primary medieval market, selling fresh foodstuffs from the countryside alongside exotic goods that arrived in these streets via the Thames; spices, coca beans, silks, ivory, coffee and gold.

The road links Cheapside, one of the oldest thoroughfares in the metropolis with The Guildhall, the ceremonial heart of the city. Located in London's historic core, Milk Street, with its many watery, fluid associations, is the perfect location for Philipsz’s resonant, echoic sound work, based upon the falling drop of a single tear.


Rachel Lichtenstein is a writer, artist and archivist. In 1999 she wrote Rodinsky's Room with Iain Sinclair and created the Artangel project Rodinsky's Whitechapel. Her most recent book, On Brick Lane, was published in 2007. She also features in the autumn 2010 edition of the Artangel Podcast.