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Tunnels and Vaults: Art Goes Underground

November 2, 2010

A visit to Lazarides Gallery’s recent show, displayed in the unseen depths of London, gets Kitty Hudson thinking about the recent trend for immersive art displays.

I recently discovered the Old Vic Tunnels. Hidden beneath Waterloo station, this abandoned space was playing host to ‘Hell’s Half Acre’, an exhibition organised by the Lazarides Gallery around the theme of Dante’s Inferno.  As it was open only from 6pm to 11pm, those who, like me, sought out the inconspicuous door in the wall found themselves waiting in darkness and drizzle with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation. The queue was a fitting preliminary to what was less a traditional art exhibition than an experience. This location, it was clear, served an important purpose: it set a specific mood, fundamentally altering the way in which the artwork within was perceived.

The descent into the damp brick-vaulted caverns was suitably nightmarish. The gateway to this artistic evocation of ‘hell’ was guarded by a large-scale projection of a baying bulldog; though merely a play of light on gauze, it took a second’s pause to plunge through the threatening image. And this sensation was sustained throughout. The exhibits were spot-lit so that they loomed out of obscurity, throwing sinister shadows and seeming more monstrously real than reason should permit. Confronted by Mark Jenkins’s Chrysalises (pictured) – lifelike female forms trussed up and hanging from the vaults – I had the strong sensation of having walked into a horror movie, the ingenuous victim who stumbles unwittingly into the psychopath’s lair.

This theatrical approach to curating contemporary art seems to be growing in popularity. White Cube put on a show very similar in concept to ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ in April-May 2008; entitled ‘You Dig the Tunnel, I’ll Hide the Soil’; this too made explicit reference to the literary, with all commissions inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Although partly located in White Cube’s Hoxton Square gallery, the majority of works in the show – and those most effectively displayed – were those in the vaults of Shoreditch Town Hall. I visited on a sunny Sunday afternoon, so that plunging into the subterranean gloom was all the more incongruous; yet the overall effect was the same, the eerie and the unnerving enhanced by the surrounding grime.

Is this trend a reaction against the ‘white cube’ exhibition space? Once revered for its modernity and objectivity, is the ‘white cube’ now so ubiquitous as to be boring? Or has something changed in society which makes us yearn for narrative, for mystery, for a more holistic experience in viewing art? These shows – and ‘show’ seems a more appropriate term than ‘exhibition’ – have the quality of performances, in which the spectator plays a crucial role.  It is like becoming the protagonist in a play, the artworks as props, triggering reactions.  Essentially it is a form of escapism, a visual equivalent of losing oneself in a book – albeit a gothic horror novel.

The desire for a distinctive and original setting in which to display works of art has manifested itself in different ways in the gallery world. Haunch of Venison’s lease of Burlington Gardens follows this pattern: the grandeur of the now eerily empty rooms, with their echoes of past occupants, makes a fitting backdrop for poignant pieces such as Polly Morgan’s taxidermied birds (see MS. Found in a Bottle, pictured) or Stuart Haygarth’s dazzling disco ball of smashed wing mirrors. Roger Hiorns’ transformation of a council flat into a glowing, otherworldly realm of blue crystals took the search for experiential displacement to a new level.

Artangel, the force behind the staging of Hiorns’ Seizure installation (pictured), specialises in unfamiliar locations. The artist is specially commissioned and the projects aim to make the ordinary extraordinary through a subversion or incongruity of place. Flora Fairbairn Projects asserts a similar mission, seeking out disused or derelict properties and ‘transforming them into one-off exhibition spaces within unique locations’, according to the website. These approaches challenge our relationship with the urban environment, forcing us to question how we interact with our surroundings and how we view and interpret art once disconnected from the traditional modes of display. Once shocking, the white walls of the gallery have now become an established, non-threatening space within which to understand modern art. And since the power of art partly depends on its ability to question and provoke, a location like the Old Vic Tunnels makes sense as a statement. Art as an event mirrors the heyday of festivals, pop-up shops and secret cinemas, giving the viewer that spine-tingling thrill of discovery and a hedonistic urge to grasp the pleasures of the ephemeral.

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