BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 03 MAR 00
Featured in
Issue 51

Urban Islands

BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 03 MAR 00

King's Cross is not one of London's most alluring districts. To an outsider it seems to be populated by an unfortunate mass of down-and-outs, prostitutes and pimps, addicts, pushers and scary-looking kids smoking cheap cigarettes. Bathed in petrol fumes and lent the Dickensian menace of the industrial revolution by the grimy monumentality of its railway terminus, it is as close as the city gets to the end of the line.

But now it seems as if the area is to go the way of much of central London and give itself up to commercial regeneration. It's a situation that is forcing Cubitt studios and gallery out of its current premises. It is fitting that the gallery's last show should be a homage to the place that has been its home for the past decade or so.

As the title suggests, the exhibition was dispersed over various locations, which made it inconvenient to view all at once. I returned again and again to see what I had missed and so had to experience the area in all its shabby, and at times threatening, glory. The only work on show in Cubitt's dank basement gallery, Julian Emens' Catharist (1999), took the form of a kind of celluloid love poem to this particular part of the city. Alluding to other recent and not so recent works about London, the film creates a psychic landscape of King's Cross, like an 18th century Gothic romance tinged with Eastern mysticism. Accompanying the grainy images of the gallery's locale, the sound-track, which included songs from Beck, the Velvet Underground and Led Zeppelin ('Stairway to Heaven' does sound better when played backwards), along with a booming narration of texts appropriated from, among others, Robert Graves' The White Goddess (1948), the I Ching, Dickens' Sketches by Boz (1836), the Illustrated Yoga Dictionary (1995) and the Human Brain Colouring Book (1999). The film makes the familiar look exotic and distant; a city of ornate spires, fanciful teetering pagodas, monstrous machinery and secret lives. For all its derivative aspects, Catharist is a beautiful and often horrifying work that communicates something of Kings Cross' sleazy glamour.

It set the tone for the rest of the works in the show; dreamlike (or nightmarish) visions of King's Cross' daily reality. Nils Norman's billboard on Caledonia Street Why Don't You: Proposal II (1999) urged the inhabitants of Cubitt studios to: 'put down your paintbrushes and barricade Caledonia Street at both ends, build an experimental makeshift children's playground, surrounded by a moveable permaculture container garden'. It continued in this vain with militant proposals for the creation of a utopian collective of artists to 'develop new solutions outside the usual gentrification process for King's Cross'. The work is a kind of a hopeless graphic rant outlining preposterous strategies; an evangelical manifesto doomed by lethargy from the very beginning - politics as style and well aware of it.

A few blocks away, Christian Jankowski reopened a long disused banking hall for 24 hours (ironically the place had recently been used as a betting office). Jankowski had the space cleaned and then hired a firm of security guards to turn the site into 'one of the most secure spaces in London'. The room, once a classic Victorian interior with stuccoed ceilings and panelled walls, is now a shadow of its former self. Its brown nylon carpet spattered with cigarette burns and harsh fluorescent lighting made it appear like a night-refuge from a Dickens novel. Closed circuit TV cameras were installed at strategic places and anyone was invited to come in and sit down (as long as they didn't deal or do drugs, drink alcohol or prostitute themselves). The artist handed out flyers at the door and invited a naturally suspicious public to enter the secure space. People did come: the art crowd, a few bewildered tourists, tramps looking for a place to sleep, some of the scary cigarette wielding kids, a man who paced up and down for hours, and people interacting. Maybe it was just a place to sit and wait on a cold November evening but, as a short-lived and wildly philanthropic act, it worked. Its outcome was the same as Norman's: a sideways glance at the possibility and (im)practicality of art providing an elegant, if ephemeral, solution.

Filther (1999) by Cathy Skene is a fanzine - pictures of young people dancing and taking drugs. The art collective Crash stuck fluorescent stickers all over King's Cross which read 'this sadness will last for ever' or 'I went to London and all I got was this stupid Tennants Extra habit' or 'fuck off back to Shoreditch'. They were as forgettable as they sound - you couldn't mistake them for anything but art, because only art would use such crude means to convey a message. But within the context of 'Urban Islands', Skene's and Crash's projects - with all the social relevance of a Big Mac - functioned better than could be expected.