Platform for the Voices of Despair
Tim Hilton (1992)
Guardian, 5 October
'As pointless as a pigeon.' Tim Hilton on the wretched art that now fills a once-glorious station.
Was it wise of the Camden Arts Centre to invite a group of artists to exhibit at St Pancras station? It's a building of much eccentricity, full of bolsterous visual thrills, affording great vistas and beckoning you into barmy crannies. First there's the enormous shed, beyond which one has a grandiose view of a noble group of gas holders; then there's Sir George Gilbert Scott's writhing neo-Gothic hotel, a maniac's cathedral, empty and barred to visitors; wide pathways and approaches; an underground cobbled alley; the wood-panelled booking hall strangely reminiscent of the Bodleian Library; and everywhere, nowadays, an air of disuse. Why are there so few trains, so few people? It's as though the provinces the station was built to serve had ceased to exist. Even the pigeons look lonely.
In short, the artists can't compete with their setting, and nobody in the station, on the two recent occasions that I visited, seems to be looking at their work. The nature of the place has forced them into tiny interventions, hints, look-at-me-I'm-hiding-jokes, sleight of hand and forlorn rumination.
I don't think any of the pieces are much good, but this is still an interesting venture. It suggests that contemporary public art is futile - which cannot be what the organisers intended. They may have had a quite different purpose, to lament the state of Britain. And in fact St Pancras is a good place in which to feel glum about national life.
Here's Maya Brisley's piece, in its entirety. It's writing, printed on a metal noticeboard miles up towards the end of platform seven.
"We reached sub-urbia and silence was introduced. Each thing in its last place, under the last dust. I saw the woman first through the kitchen window taking a plaster cast of the blood stained surface. Her face was shattered and held together by an antelope mask from Mall. We continued and passed a dwarf conifer, a weeping willow and a furnival's daughter."
How many messages are there in this work of modern art? You can't devise a noticeboard without a communication of one sort or another. The word furnival isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary, though it sounds so definitely old English that you feel the language should have picked it up at some time. Anyway, this is what Ms Brisley has to say, and we're at liberty to make of it what we will.
Liberty! Perhaps the wrong word in St Pancras. The more you roam the station in search of art, the more you find images of constraint and powerlessness. Stuart Brisley, the artist best known for his grisly performance pieces, has put a piece of sculpture on the wall next to his wife's notice. It's a sort of elongated cage, of no particular visual interest, but perhaps he means to point out that - what? That we all live in cages and the missus has had a vision of the end of the world? Banality is not too far away.
Near the cobbled passageway and the Red Star depot are two blown-up photographs by Seton Smith, apparently of places that were once at the end of the Midland line. They are so boring that, one again, I turned to the station itself. Someone once told me that the varied and multicoloured stonework at the front of the St Pancras hotel was assembled from bricks specially quarried from places served by St Pancras trains. Can any Guardian reader confirm this?
People who come into the capital this morning from Sheffield, Nottingham and such places can get a site map of the works of art from a kiosk. It's marked Northern Adventures, which is also the title of the exhibition. Rather subdued adventures, it seems to me.
At the kiosk you can get coloured postcards of Cornella Parker's contribution, which is not actually on view because it's in the empty hotel. One gathers that Parker has been scratching around in the mysterious upstairs, finding call girls cards, stripping off bits of wallpaper, slotting matchsticks behind the lightning conductor and so on. The hotel has obviously worked on her imagination, but what she produces doesn't add up to much.
St Pancras is a monument to the optimism and grandeur of the railway age at its height, in the latter 1860s: It's sad to see its present state, but I wish that some of the original vigour had affected the artists who are showing there. Mostly they turn towards the poetry of separation, the equal hopelessness of departure and arrival. Sonia Boyce puts unhappy messages on to tablecloths in the Coffee Shop. Bill Culbert has collected old suitcases, given them screens, bright but without information, and hung them in the Travel Centre.
These pieces are diverting, not more. I want art with more energy and more feeling that it's actually been made, given a shape by hand and eye in creative labour that stands up to the world. The true theme of this show is defeat. And defeat is the subtext of neo-conceptualism, the non-art non-movement that vaguely unites them. The exhibition is as pointless as a pigeon - those intruders that the St Pancras management vainly tries to keep out, with nets slung all over the place to keep them from nesting. One artist, Egied Simons, has built a pigeon coop on top of the GPO store. Its holes all have wire in front of them. Art must not interfere with nature or management.
The one thing I really like in St Pancras is a piece best seen on your hands and knees. Antoni Malinowski has dribbled paint on to the pavement as you go into the forecourt, underneath some Gothic arches (note the 19th century statuary), as though it had seeped from some foot-high fault. Then he's made repeated marks in this paint. It sounds all wrong - but here in truth is a bit of magic. Malinowski is a real artist.
As is confirmed by a visit to the Camden Arts Centre, where the same artists are showing in normal, clear and candid gallery conditions. Malinowski is not a conceptualist, but a modern painter. He can do these repetitious pattern-like gestures and combine them with large scrawled drawing in a way I haven't seen from any other artist of his generation. His canvases have an individual rightness, somewhere between public and private. See, for instance, how his three larger paintings might or might not benefit from being framed. They wouldn't.
There's a good future for Malinowski, when he finds exactly what he wants to do. My advice would be to separate himself from his present company and only do solo shows in small and prestigious galleries. The Camden Arts Centre ought to be prestigious but somehow it isn't. The Northern Adventures business suggests that they believe too much in the public functions of art and aren't looking for quality. Most of these station people are exposed as weak artists in the CAC. So here's a paradox of Northern Adventures. Art is best served by getting people into galleries, not by spilling artists all over the place. As for lovable St Pancras - does it not have some kind of protection committee?