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Exhibition visit: Koo Jeong A upgrades Charing Cross

Disused station at Charing Cross
The old Jubiliee line terminus at Charing Cross – before the intervention

When we visited the Venice Biennale in 2009, one of the installations in the Giardini was by Koo Jeong A entitled A Reality Upgrade & End Alone (2009). The installation involved the sprinkling of 3,000 rhinestones on the grass near the cafeteria, which should have resulted in the tired lawn miraculously coming alive with fairy dust. And indeed that’s what it looks like in official photographs of a similar installation on her gallery’s website. But I visited late in the season after some early autumnal rain, with the result that the stones had sunk into the ground or otherwise lost their sparkle, and I wondered if I was looking in the right direction.

Some of the visitors to Koo’s one-off installation in the former Jubilee Line terminus at Charing Cross this weekend similarly wondered if they were in the right place. “Where’s the art?” I heard a couple of people asking one of the security / health & safety team who were patrolling the platforms making sure no-one crossed the safety barriers. Maybe they were expecting to see some paintings hung on the platform walls. In a way, however, the audience themselves were an integral part of the artwork.

On our way to see Koo Jeong A's installation
On our way to see Koo Jeong A’s installation

We had queued up with about forty others for one of the pre-booked half-hour time slots to visit the installation. Each one of us had received an email message containing the most ridiculous health and safety briefing imaginable. “No heeled footwear will be permitted and feet must be fully covered. We recommend that you wear sturdy walking shoes…” Who knows? This warning too may have been part of the artwork, setting up a certain level of expectation as to what we were going to experience. It turned out that where we were going was in fact what you can experience any day on the London Underground. You walk along a corridor with fellow passengers, curse when the escalators are broken (again) and you have to walk down the fixed stairway instead; you mill about waiting for a train to appear and, cursing again when you hear that the service has been suspended, you head for the exit.

Of course, this was different.

For one thing, you knew in advance that the service had been suspended, permanently, as these platforms are now only used for training purposes or as movie locations. The Jubilee line has now been diverted to Stratford via Westminster, and the tracks leading to the former terminus under Trafalgar Square are not used.

For another thing, as you plodded rhythmically down the stairs, you noticed that the silent escalators either side were remarkably scrubbed. And as you descended, your nose gradually became aware of a soapy, powder-like fragrance, a scent which became stronger the lower you got.

At the bottom of the stairs is a large hallway on the either side of which are short passageways to the platforms. As you entered the space various things started registering with you.

Koo Jeong A: Disused Jubliee Line
The empty space at the bottom of the escalators

Or maybe the absence of things: because what one usually expects in a place which is so familiar in nature is speed, bustle and confusion as passengers hurry on their business; and noise (of people chattering, platform announcements, and train wheels and doors). Here there was emptiness, calm, and relative silence. And underpinning it all was the persistent calming presence of the fragrance.

Then, you notice the light. At first you’re not sure what’s odd about it. Certainly it’s clean and clinical, but maybe that’s just because there aren’t any passengers around. You explore further. Maybe, like the people mentioned above, you were expecting that the platforms were going to be the centre of attention, so you turn down one of the side passageways to the platforms, only to be dazzled by a powerful spotlight.

A spotlight and a barrier blocks the entrance to the platforms
A spotlight and a barrier blocks the entrance to the platforms

You proceed to the barrier and look along the platform. Maybe you are disappointed not to see anything apart from electric cables, fragrance generators and health & safety people making sure you don’t proceed any further.

Then you start exploring the space, wondering what the artist is trying to say.

You notice that the floor has been painted white, to enhance the brilliance of the light which is flooding in from the platforms.

Maybe you start appreciating the contrast of the warm green and yellow colours of the ceramic tiles with the harsh whiteness of the light.

Then you start noticing the shadows – the giant distorted shapes made by your body, more exaggerated than at sunset because the light is brighter. You start playing with the shadows, making shapes with your hands. Maybe you kiss your beloved in front of the light.

And then you start looking at the shadows rather than the people. They are like the ghosts of the people who used to throng this station before its closure in 1999. As the shadows were projected onto the walls of the concourse, it was as if the passengers from the past were coming back to haunt the visitors of the present.

Shadows from the past

Was that what was intended by the artist? Who knows. But by opening up this disused station for Koo Jeong A’s installation, ICA’s Art Night gave us plenty to mull over.

Art Night was on 2 July 2016.

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