SWISS artist Christoph Büchel's installation is hard to decipher. Is it a biting statement on the state of Conservative Britain and the perils of right wing government? Is it appealing to our nostalgic sentiments with memorabilia from a bygone era or is it just trying to do something positive in the community?
The really confusing thing is you know it's supposed to be art, but you see a fully-functioning community centre and find it hard to believe it's all just a big illusion.
Walking along Piccadilly, taking in elegant and prestigious sights such as Fortnum & Mason, the Royal Academy and The Ritz hotel, the last thing you might expect to see is a community centre.
But there it is at 196a, giving the immediate impression that something isn't quite right here. Especially when you walk in through the majestic doors of what used to be a bank, designed by Edwin Lutyens, and until very recently a gallery, run by Hauser & Wirth. The building now claims to be the Piccadilly Community Centre. Inside is the usual overflowing notice board typical of most council buildings, a garish sign, once stuck up outside reading, ‘Cheques cashed, payday loans’, a broken cash-point and a fictitious cheque-cashing store.
In the municipal and some regulars sat around evoking praises for the services that the centre has on offer.
In the basement you are greeted by a TV playing the royal wedding and other tinges of patriotism in the union jacks scattered around. At the end of the corridor is a bar that has a passing resemblance to your average British legion with a few bits of quirky pottery and paraphernalia. A door marked private then leads you into another world in the fictitious janitor's quarters. Numerous cuckoo clocks, a picture of the queen, a huge collection of memorabilia and the authentic stale smell of a room from another age make you feel as though the door you just walked through must have had time-travelling properties.
Heading upstairs on the first floor is a ballroom where afternoon tea dances happen along with a suitably mundane changing room, prayer room and art therapy room. Carry on up the stairs to a charity shop with a huge Conservative display espousing information about the Conservative archive, campaigns and a video on the history of the party. The next, slightly more rickety, steel set of steps leads you to a small opening to the attic and there's a full on squat; a sort of behind the scenes look at broken Britain. Around ten mattresses and about the same amount of bits of drug related equipment, a couple of old, knackered TVs and a whole load of mess carpets the floor. Out on the roof are a few more sleeping bags and even some soiled knickers .
The contrast of the sparkling Conservative display in the charity shop and the squat upstairs, complete with defaced posters of Clegg and Cameron, is striking: one a pristine shrine to conservative values of patriarchy and tradition, and the other quite starkly displaying who can be left behind.
Wondering around the exhibition, I wasn't sure what to think. It's great they are putting on all these classes, which generally seem quite targeted at the elderly. There are tea dances in the afternoon mostly for people who still want to have a good waltz or ballroom dance but can't go out at night to do it. Other more obscure classes include sports fencing for pensioners, 50 plus speed dating, the over 55s quiz night and computer classes for those not born in the 'technological age'.
This isn't the first time Christoph has done something like this. Other illusively real installations have included a fictitious jail in Glasgow for the Lockerbie bomber. Only a temporary installation, it has had around 7,000 visitors come through the doors since it opened in May. Some of the regulars clearly don't want it to end. One of them we spoke to said he's made a habit of coming over from Hounslow, and a lot of people will be very sad to see it go.
The really confusing thing is you know it's supposed to be art, but you see a fully-functioning community centre and find it hard to believe it's all just a big illusion. Even now, there is still a question of authenticity. One thing is certain; fitting entire floors of rooms to look like your average council building along with fictitious cash checking stores doesn't come cheap. What Christoph has done is nothing short of impressive. It's up to you to answer this question, Do you think it's a ridiculous exhibition? Or do you think it's kind of clever? We would say it's a bit of both.
For more information on the Piccadilly Community Centre go to www.piccadillycommunitycentre.org
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