The Towers of Ilium is a 15 minute video film by artist Lynn MacRitchie. Shot on location by the Thames Estuary in Essex, with a cast of local volunteers, it combines themes from Homer’s Iliad with references to the contemporary phenomenon of gang culture - in this case skinheads - to explore the role of violence as a means of social organisation from ancient times to the present day.
Ilium is another name for Troy, the site of the legendary Trojan war. It is a real place, in the Dardanelles, in what is now known as Turkey, very close to the site of another tragic campaign, Gallipoli, which took place during the First World War. The “Iliad”, Homer’s story of Troy, has become one of the greatest tales in western literature. Written about 750 BC, it tells in powerful detail about the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans and the deaths of many warriors, but above all that of Hector at the hands of Achilles. Lynn MacRitchie, visiting the area, was moved by the proximity of these two sites, their battles fought over a millennium of years apart, to make a film. The result, the “Towers of Ilium”, suggests that war is always present and often close to home.
Seeking a location close to London which in some way resembled the Gallipoli Peninsula, the artist was directed to Coalhouse Fort Park, East Tilbury, Thurrock, a site on the Thames Estuary long associated with military history. Known as a defensive site on the river since the 15th century, the current fort was completed in 1874. The radar tower was built during World War Two. To disguise its true function, its structure mimics that of a water tower.
Local stories were combined with passages from the “Iliad” to form the core of the film. The radar tower became the pattern for a model tower which is carried in procession by a group of “warriors”, a re-imagining of the Tilbury Trojans, a notorious skinhead gang formed in Tilbury in the late 1960s. On a specially prepared site, they take part in a series of stylised fights, a reference to the funeral games with which both the Trojans and the Greeks honoured their dead warriors. The character of Achilles appears, commenting on the futility of such combat, which can have only one outcome – death. A second, large-scale model tower is burned, the spectacular blaze intended to suggest that the real radar tower has been destroyed, the destiny Achilles predicts for all such structures and the societies which rely on them. Is it inevitable that the young, present-day boy who appears at the beginning and at the very end of the film must also be destined to experience such conflict?
Lynn MacRitchie has nearly 20 years experience of making and exhibiting work in video and installation in the UK and abroad. After a lengthy career as an arts writer including 16 years as contemporary art critic of the Financial Times, in 1996 she returned to the studio and has since exhibited regularly at venues including Gasworks Gallery, Tate Modern and The Showroom, all in London, and the Akbank Cultural Centre, Istanbul.