George Henry Longlyʼs work consists in volumes. It extends beyond its formal components to
mix with the air and alter the light. It is partly solid, partly optical, both concrete and
immaterial, not altogether easy to quantify or contain. It enters into an environment affecting a
temporary but total change.
Immaterial volumes could be said to be both a product and by-product of the Industrial
Revolution. The literature of Victorian England is filled with observations about the countryʼs
air and atmosphere that serve to illustrate the new economy and its accompanying modes of
production. Visiting London in 1824, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle reported that he had seen
a ʻblack vapour broodingʼ over Holborn, like ʻfluid inkʼ. Charles Dickensʼs Bleak House (1852)
describes ʻa soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakesʼ falling
on neighbouring Lincolns Inn Fields. Further north, in Hard Times (partly set in a fictional
version of the Lancashire mill-town of Preston) there were ʻinterminable serpents of smokeʼ, a
ʻblack canalʼ and ʻa river that ran purple with ill-smelling dyeʼ. Dickens described ʻCoketownʼ
as a place so deep within the haze of industry that it was known to exist only because ʻthere
could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a townʼ
In time, daylight would be so diminished that artificial sources would take the place of the sun.
Yet the immaterial wastes of industry long preceded electricity and its commodities.
Environmental debates began in 1661 with a pamphlet titled Fumifugium by the gunpowder
heir John Evelyn. By 1884 the art-critic John Ruskin was giving dark prophecies for The
Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, a new phenomena of ʻplague-cloudʼ dimming the light
in the industrial cities of England.
Longlyʼs industrial aesthetics are far distanced from this age. The glossy surfaces, elegant
lines and ornamental colour that appear in his work bear little trace of manufacture. His
materials are determinedly inorganic, characterized by the kind of purity associated with 20th
century laboratories rather than 19th century mills. Blocks of reconstituted chip foam or tablets
made from plaster mixed with powder paints effect a confection of pastel shades. Patches of
Artex or spray paint lacquers determine other synthetic textures and colours. Longlyʼs work
reflects a modern, domestic sensibility. It gravitates toward the new, man-made materials and
their implicit ideals.
According to the historian Lewis Mumford, the environmental conditions of the industrial
economy dulled taste and blunted the senses. Pre-Raphaelite or Impressionist artists were
accused of adopting an ʻunnaturalʼ and ʻinartisticʼ palette. In the large ʻPaleotechnicʼ towns,
with their coal mines and steel plants, the air was thick with fossil fuels that tinned food was
purchased when fresh produce was readily available. People were no longer sure of their
ability to detect stale goods.
The estranged machine perfection in Longlyʼs work and its diffuse operations appear adapted
to this course. His objects occupy the gallery space like random details from a science fiction,
with quasi museological systems of display that seem to suggest their origin in another age.
Elements of a composition are treated like a set of particles that remain together but subject
to change. Solid materials are perforated or partially transparent; surfaces are looked at and
looked through. There are shapes cut by light or marked out by shadow. A sculpture may be
moulded from dust or coloured by an aerosol spray. Everything seems mobile, soluble, open
to translation or displacement.
Longlyʼs work draws attention to the physical or chemical properties of things that find an
otherwise common application in life, deactivating a default utilitarian approach to the modern
environment and its components. His objects determine encounter with something that seems
partly familiar, partly belonging to an indeterminate narrative. Together they appear like part
of a code; relics or fragments of something almost lost.