Northern Adventures - An Exhibition of North European Art on Two Sites

Kay Roberts (1992)
Camden Arts Centre and St Pancras Station, London

Northern Adventures celebrates the past, present and future of St Pancras, a well-loved London landmark which for over a century has represented a gateway to the North of England. The station and its environs are undergoing great changes, including the creation of a terminus for the Channel Tunnel Link. This has provided an opportunity for the invited artists to create site specific work especially for this time of transition.

Intrinsic to this project is an enquiry into how art functions in public places, how the public at St Pancras, the great number of travellers, commuters, visitors, voyagers, who hurry about their business every day, can gain new insights to familiar surroundings through such interventions. A metropolitan terminus has any number of functions beyond that of simply moving people from place to place, as it encapsulates within that practicality the hopes, dreams and desires of all those who arrive and depart.

All the artists included in this exhibition have a record of working on particular architectural sites as well as for galleries, a facet of their practice which can be seen simultaneously at the Camden Arts Centre. The two sites reveal different nuances and emphases inspired by the differing contexts.

The paradox of the gothic Midland Grand Hotel juxtaposed with the vast iron and glass drum of the railway shed, amply illustrates architect Sir George Gilbert Scott's view that 'architecture should decorate construction.' It also represents the meeting of Victorian ideals with the modern. St Pancras has inspired many artists since it was built and it is from Paul Nash's painting Northern Adventure (1929) that the title of the exhibition is derived. The combination of art and architecture is an underlying theme in all the work shown, but it is the station itself that has moulded the commissioned paintings, sculpture and photographs.

The original entrance to St Pancras is through the first arch into the glass-roofed taxi rank. It is here that the new arrival is met by a harbinger of what may lie at the end of the journey. Seton Smith's two photographic images of the Derbyshire landscape, the former destination of the now defunct Midland line, reflect Smith's concern with metaphor. The viaduct as a means of change and the tree a symbol of nature, with the station providing a transition from one location to another. At the Centre, Smith's images of the bed and the garden placed face-to-face restate this questioning of the language of nature and architecture.

Using as a starting point the fictional life of the station cafe in the film Brief Encounter, Sonia Boyce has placed a rich collage of images and texts in the Traveller's Fare buffet. This demonstrates her continuing concern with the temporary nature of such liaisons. She has covered a number of 'standing only' tables with fragments of messages and messengers, the very act of standing to eat or drink emphasising the desire to move on quickly. A linking alcove between two galleries at the Centre is the location for two photographic works featuring two sets of couples, the details of their faces so displayed as to draw visitors briefly into close contact in the small viewing space.

The rootless condition of society and the resultant consequences for those without roots have long been central to Stuart Brisley's work. Two constructions, based on terraced houses have been made: the steel Bloody House at St Pancras is accompanied by a text by Maya Brisley and the wooden Anonyme at Camden Arts Centre is surrounded by Brisley's photographs. Both are structures without solid walls - they should be contained but they have no boundaries, they are permeated by the outside. "The terminus is a great site of the unconscious, as remarkable in its way as the edge of the sea or the horizon" (Stuart Brisley).

This mass of coming and going has also been alluded to in miniature by Egied Simons. An elongated pigeon loft added to the Royal Mail depot outside the station has many connections with the disparate functions of a mainline station and the constant flutter of people, freight, workers, mail. By comparison, the photographic pieces at the Centre are calm, leaving the viewer to perceive the space as it is denoted by light and dark. The scenes, not instantly recognisable, only slowly crystallise into a known image.

The basis of perception is evident also in Antoni Malinowksi's dense stroke-lined work in the final exit arch from the station. Mapping uses brush stroke upon brush stroke and the repetition of military map marking symbols to build up undulating pools of colour on the pavement. Marking out time and space with signs, it is a continuous process and one which is inherently futile as the marks are fugitive, disappearing naturally with the wear of repeated footsteps. The paintings at Camden Arts Centre are an inseparable part of this complete work, both parts distilled down to an essential spirit of place.

Metaphysical connections also play a part in Cornelia Parker's work. Made and photographed in the cavernous spaces of the former hotel (no longer accessible to the public), these small sculptures are seen here only as images in postcards. Parker was able to take advantage of the current restoration of the building, creating assemblages which draw on the state of transition caused by this conservation work. The swirling specks of matter placed in the light wells at Camden Arts Centre may be reminders of substances found in any dwelling and of their impermanence. Thus soot becomes carpet, chalk becomes matches and phosphorous becomes electricity. Change is all.

The ephemeral nature of travel alluded to in Bill Culbert's suitcase monitor also refers covertly to the mortality of the traveller. Abandoned suitcases delicately suffused with light provide no information about past or future journeys, despite harking back to their owners and the travels undertaken. The temporal nature of objects is further emphasised in Culbert's glasses on glass, Anchoves et Moutarde, at the Centre. The sense of the object unfolds through its reflection and shadow rather than through its solid form, its reality being perceived only through an illusion.

Many of the artists in Northern Adventures are interested in the use of light. In Common Knowledge, Jane Mulfinger has etched jokes on glass in the windows above the wooden panelling of the ticket office. These jokes (by Europeans about Europeans) are transcribed in their original languages, bringing about a metaphysical meeting of cultural differences and prejudices. Mulfinger uses light again at Camden Arts Centre where cast-off clothing is stretched across a glass vaulted skylight in a hidden roof-space, and only seen by means of a periscope. The viewer is isolated in the act of spying onto a different reality - a one-to-one communication with a hidden form.

On the adjacent walls of the booking hall at the station, Jeffrey Dennis' composite paintings feature floral patterns inspired by designs of William Morris. Chequered with details taken from the station architecture and the destinations of the trains, these paintings evolved out of recent work which appears at the Centre.

As a finale to Northern Adventures, Anne Bean & Peter Fink will project large-scale images onto the tarpaulin which presently masks the facade of St Pancras. For the final week of the exhibition, from dusk until midnight, these projected images pertinent to the station, its locale and its history - will be a visible manifestation of a project whose central theme has focused on all these facets.