in Frieze | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

Notes From the Underground

H.G., an installation by Robert Wilson and Has-Peter Kuhn at Clink Street Vaults, London

in Frieze | 11 SEP 95

A short step leads from a rainy London street to a small, deserted dining room lit by candelabra and decorated with antique portraits, china vases, slivers of zebra skin and long, elegant peacock feathers. On the mantelpiece stand models of ruins; on the table are a miniature Sphinx and the remains of a party for a dozen guests and, ominously, a mirror has been bordered with black crepe. A museum with a period flavour, it seems, which can even be dated precisely: leaving by the far door, visitors discover a table bearing a copy of The Times from Thursday, September 12, 1895. Above that table a stuffed rhinoceros head looms unexpectedly out of the darkness, as if it has burst through the wall. But perhaps all this is only teasing, a set of shock tactics before subtler methods are employed. Their onset is marked by a clue that no one could miss. A safe with its door ajar reveals a spotlit watch, fob and cigarette case bearing the initials 'H.G.' It acts as a signpost: beyond this, in a series of spaces more dark than light, a sequence of tableaux has been prepared. Those few yards from dining room to safe constitute a longer journey than it seems. At the bottom of the stairs on the other side of that packed room a dark, indefinite space extends, a low area whose ceiling is supported by powerful wooden struts like the supports for the passages of a coal mine, with thick metal doors jammed open between one area and the next.

Paths extend to right and left, with naked bulbs lighting the way. Despite clues, the space remains baffling: as mysterious as our reason for venturing in. In a long, blue area, searchlights scan spaces between pillars. And, as secrecy and subversion, imprisonment and hopelessness coalesce, room, dinner party, even the rhinoceros are forgotten. Uneven, crooked paths extend, unsignposted, on both sides. When the site housed the Clink prison, hope had been abandoned by this time. Sometimes incarcerated simply for observing their religion, inmates watched and prayed. Was the atmosphere as nervous as this? The silhouette of a cat is seen, arching its back. And people? Only one: a female figure in half-darkness, moving so slowly it is hard to tell whether she is statue or human. But these events are exceptions. For instead of humanity, only traces of humanity can be discerned: distant sounds of walking and banging, evidence of activity. In one chapel-like area, a spotlight illuminates a white plaster hand, dangling high up near the ceiling, while on the floor the corpse of a tall male figure lies scattered with rose petals. Other spaces also emphasise the sterility of martyrdom and relics; an illuminated tub contains tops of clear glass bottles, while a distant violinist plays a hymn tune. In the middle of a room haunted by the sound of footsteps overhead, a part of the ceiling has been removed to reveal a crude paper chair. Above that hangs a childishly painted, pink, papier mâché globe flanked by cotton-wool clouds.

What is significant and what not? A passageway with empty beer cans piled on either side serves as a reminder that we are at water level; an alligator skull protruding from the refuse scarcely seems untoward. Nor, indeed, do the treasures. Charles Dickens knew this district well. Criminals rowed through fog, robbing drowned men whose bodies floated to the surface. Outside are centres of trade and religion - Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. This area is distinct from both: the Clink served for centuries as a prison, for Catholics in particular. That it lay beyond normal jurisdiction, however, made it a place of faith as well as of undeserved punishment, a place of vision and visionaries. But the visions lasted no more than a second. The rest of the time was spent praying and keeping watch on those who stood guard. For to be watched night and day makes prisoners themselves more watchful. Do prisoners ever forget why they were locked away? If so, there are always reminders, like a space containing hundreds of pairs of shoes: men's, women's, children's, each pair labelled and numbered and placed in an area which at some point has been used for weighing and measuring, as the permanent, giant machine in the next room shows. What does balance mean in a place like this? As if to make that point, an enormous, elaborately ornamented table performs a balancing act, with one leg resting on a huge light bulb.

At one end of the entire space, the visitor wanders into a corner, the second spot to be allotted a definite historical date: 1919. Army beds, each with a grey blanket, a white sheet and a single pillow point in the same direction. Drains contain buckets of blood, illuminated by overhanging lamps. On one side is a desk and some screens. Not only the desk is littered with paper; details of business, graphs and image ratings are also strewn across the floor. Yet another set consists of an annual report by a Chief Medical Officer. In the place of the earlier single, unmelodic piano notes is heard the sound of a crackly wireless set, broadcasting at one point a speech, at another a German choir. To one side of the desk stands a pair of shiny riding boots and a crop. Another kind of incarceration is summoned up and the wretchedness is recalled of hospitals during World War I, that incompetent, unhygienic, drawn-out slaughter that began without logic and continued that way. The boots and crop - empty, abandoned - have the air of a signature: empty clothes are a figure of speech, the part for the whole. They may encapsulate the image of the rich that altered so much at this period or simply signal a disappearance: an entire person has vanished into thin air.

The sounds alter constantly. In one area composed of small cloister-like spaces, the wedding of image and sound rivals Tarkovsky. Water falls with a heavy slap onto a large, well-lit space complete with Christmas tree, presided over by a giant garden gnome or Lord of Misrule. Objects on the floor include a hammer that has fallen out of his hand and a dozen or so paintings concealed by cobwebs except for the faces, as if someone has deliberately searched them out - someone who knew them. Could these be members of the secret group who fled from the first room: an urban equivalent of the fate of the Marie Celeste? There are clues which support this theory. In a space of its own, an illuminated tank, a single creature is swimming: an axolotl, half fish, half mammal, with useless, vestigial feet. Also in the tank is a bottle of pink liquid liquid labelled 'H.G.' - a person, group or a signature for its own sake, indicating authorship, individuality or group identity, an encouragement to keep faith. Without permission to employ icons, what remains of Christianity? Certainly nothing visible. As the axolotl may acknowledge, the key is breath.

Flight is one possibility, as those empty boots suggest. Yet in such a place, where life is cheap, sheer escapism or fantasy is another. Drugs offer that, but so, perhaps, does will-power or imagination. At the end of the ward of beds stands a door. It has three thick bars and is locked, and given the nature of everything else that is going on, passes as normal. This is not the only area here that cannot be entered, but it is certainly the most puzzling. Looking between the bars, it is hard to believe your own eyes. Framed by darkness, some distance away, a forest scene appears. It is a summer day and the plants and trees are profuse. Leaves sway in the breeze, a breeze so strong it can easily be felt through the bars of the cell and sounds of birds can be heard, calling through the dense foliage. It could be described as a mirage; it is impossible that it could exist in real terms. But can the death ward of a military hospital in 1919 exist for us 'in real terms'? Here a dose of reality has been more than compensated for by an overdose of unreality. The space viewed is real space. (On the wall visitors can see shadows of themselves looking through the bars.) It could be argued that after all the emphasis on imprisonment so far, it is sad to see the visitor returned to the status of a captive, a mere shadow. Yet this would be a muddled view. What is seen is their hallucination too.

As the central corridors extend and visitors lose their way, other visions are summoned. Walking gradually uphill into a darkened room, the consistency of the floor alters, steps become noiseless and the atmosphere more comforting, if a little sepulchral. Light is in short supply. Beneath a low-hanging light bulb, a pile of a mysterious white substance is presented, and on its right an illuminated tomb. Abandon this sepulchre, with its German voice explaining details of trade, and a sight that is little less than unbelievable meets the gaze. Seen through a half-demolished wall, a vast, high space is revealed, looking as if it has been excavated. Yellow pillars stand at the top of low flights of steps, while the deep blue sky is full of arrows: all, like Zeno's, suspended in mid-air, never to fall to earth. The music is a simple, perpetual anthem played on an organ. From those confined spaces, almost cages, that set the level of expectation at the start, to the ruin and this split-second, commemorated for ever, H.G. has been an exercise in fantasy, an escape from mental dungeons, a journey beyond all expectation. Theatrical, visionary, playful, the installation has expanded the limits of possibility, reinforced the role of imagination. Yet in Coleridge's famous distinction, the images we have witnessed have more nearly touched 'fantasy': a theatre of visions without live actors or a logical plot, in this case a site populated by wraiths played by the visitors themselves.

But what of the wild-goose chase on which we embarked so long ago, which has offered mysteries, even mysteries within mysteries? Whose is the jewelled bracelet abandoned in the ward of the military hospital? Why should German voices in particular be talking to us about industry in a space which offers a straight choice between an idyllically comfortable future and an equally idyllically threatened past? If there is a hero or heroine are they alive or dead? Is there a secret society which stretches at least from the 17th century to the present, and has it been suppressed? If so, is it really suppressed or is the suppression merely a ruse to allow its members to preserve their identities, in other words to stay underground? What links the secret society meeting with the portraits strewn around the floor? Does it have anything to do with the Holy Grail? One hint is the double appearance of the sphinx, once - a black sphinx - on the dinner table and once - a giant, dazzlingly white sphinx - in what looked like a bank vault. Turning from the beleaguered yet sublimely peaceful ruin, we notice a glass of wine on a ledge high above us, wonder how it got there and finally make out the inscription on the glass. It reads 'H.G.'