June 22nd, 2005


London 3: the installation

I fly today from London to New York, repeating my great escape from "Cool Britannia" back in March 2000. You can read what a relief that was in Nasty, British and Short, the essay I wrote shortly after settling into a tiny apartment in Chinatown. This time I'm staying on Manhattan Avenue, up near Columbia University. I'm curious whether New York will still feel as liberating and as welcoming.

In the meantime, I wanted to sketch a souvenir of my impressions of London this time around. I wanted to try and squeeze my basic feeling about London into a single image: an installation.

My installation consists of a door-shaped piece of MDF standing in a doorframe. It looks a bit cheap, but someone's put a posh handle on it, a knocker and a little fanlight, like the windows on the doors of the mid-century semis that form so much of London's suburbs. There's even coloured glass in the fanlight. The shabby MDF and posh accoutrements wage a little war between cheap and classy, brutal and retro-utopian. Neither wins, but a style you might call "Brutalist Edwardian" emerges. You half expect to see an ultraviolent Teddy Boy emerge from this door, an 88 year-old pill-popping, razor wielding spiv.

Above the door there's a plastic sign with the words "CITY CARS" in drop-shadow Profil. The bottom of the door stinks: it's been pissed on, and a slow stain spreads through the ply, tinged with a white liverish residue. Repelled by the odour, you walk around to the other side of the frame and see a mailbox overspilling with commercial bumph: a pizza menu, a leaflet with the word WIN! in drop-shadow stretched Univers on a red ground, a free tabloid with horrific details of a happyslap rape next to an article about a tennis star headlined "Why does she grunt like a pig?", another brochure with a picture of a sharky silver car and the words "0% interest!" and an estate agent's brochure. You look more closely and see that it's covered in little pictures of 1940s London semis all priced at £350,000 or more, but that the last picture is an incongruous photo of a stilted house in the hills of Northern Thailand listed at £8000. Surely some mistake?

You're about to go and look at the other installations in the room when you notice a little label saying that this piece has won the Turner Prize. There's a quote from an Adrian Searle review in The Guardian: "After ten years in which art students have referred to 90s Britart, if at all, in hushed, sneery tones (at Goldsmith's the students talk about "DH"), it seems YBA has returned, like mould to a cheese sandwich. City Cars, while not particularly new (it could be a Sarah Lucas piece from 1994), tackles our perennial British shoddy oddity - the way we'd probably screw brass knockers to bin bags if we could. It's a look into the void as unflinching as anything by the Chapman Brothers."