16 May, 2009

Tunnel 228 – Should You Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth?

Posted by: admin In: Art of the State

15,000 people have signed up to see a free event taking place in the dank, dark Victorian Tunnels underneath Waterloo station during this week. Details are very sketchy of what to expect – the official website offers very little in the way of clues as it hides behind the façade of a railway track cleaning company with only a booking form and a rough map to guide the visitor. Reports detail that it’s a head on collision of ideas between performance art company Punchdrunk, Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic and a multitude of artists, many of whom are loosely connected with the ‘urban/outsider’ art scene – certainly Lazarides is listed amongst the contributors. Arriving at the entrance located on the taxi run up to Waterloo station you are ushered inside to a lobby where the minimum of information is given to you by black clad masked guards who tersely instruct “No photos, do not speak to other visitors, wear this face mask’. I’d asked earlier about taking photos and was told “absolutely not, not even for the press” so you’re going to have to use your imagination from hereon in to visualise whats down in the tunnels. Getting your eyes accustomed to the dark you walk down a slope to a series of interconnecting rooms with significant pieces of art picked out by spotlights. There’s a ridiculously (as in bling) over the top gold statue of two angels fighting by Antony Micallef and tucked away in small corners are deftly lit model railway sized street scenes of bingo halls and service stations by Slinkachu. Looking at a coffin the guy next to me attempts to take a picture on his mobile phone and a guard immediately slinks out of the shadows and forcefully tells him “no photos, respect the dead”. In fact there are guards everywhere, watching and ticking off those who fail to obey the rules. Its hard to tell whether they are acting a part (strangely there’s another guy wandering around untroubled with a large camera taking as many photos as he wants), protecting image rights to the place or are just no different to the attendants who would tell you off for attempting exactly the same things in Tate Modern. And that is in part my problem with the show. Kevin Spacey had the idea for the place after seeing Banksy’s Cans Festival in the tunnel next door to these ones. That show was also free but had no restrictions on taking photos – hell you could even rock up and paint the walls yourself if you fancied a go. Here, in Tunnel 228, everything is controlled which left me wondering about the reasons why. Was it because if people could take pictures or talk it would take away from the chilly atmosphere generated by the guards? I can certainly understand that as a reason and I respected it during my time there but something else gnawed at me – were the restrictions simply about ensuring control? There were to be ‘No press photos’ – so why does the Evening Standard and Guardian have a gallery of shots taken at the show on their website? And the free book that you receive on exit (a very nice touch indeed) lists amongst the sponsors Bloomberg – yes that Bloomberg – the chief herder in the financial markets. It might just be me but I’ve been used to seeing work by the artists involved being free from this kind of ‘support’, certainly in such a visible way. There’s a fantastic Vhils ‘Boss Face’, cut out of the render on a wall and stained with coffee but unlike any other pieces of his work it felt as protected as if it had been in the National Gallery. There’s a great deal to see, much of it is very good (I particularly liked the miniature train that disappeared off into the darkness, rising up into the air only to return a few minutes later). The worker walking upside down on a track in the ceiling just to plant a flower was another favourite. No doubt about it – if you’ve managed to get a ticket you’re in for a treat – I just wish I could get rid of this feeling that something is being lost in our connection to this art…and yet I understand fully that without sponsorship an event on this scale would be almost impossible to be kept free. Outsider art sponsored by Bloomberg…I’ll leave you to make your own mind up where this is all going….

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