Postmodern art for shoegazers

A pavement-bound, moving-image public art installation is set to welcome visitors to a new arts and design hub in central London, says Mike Exon

An embryonic creative hub in a backstreet of London’s Victoria quietly set an important precedent this week.

Fragile, a moving-image project created by artist Idris Khan, is set into the pavement at the reborn Howick Place development in London, SW1, now home to the Bill Katz-designed Phillips de Pury auction house. The former Royal Mail sorting office is being turned into an arts and design hub for creative businesses in the capital by developer Alessandro Cajrati Crivelli and architect Squire and Partners.

Aside from its innovative, walk-over-me design signalling the arrival of London’s newest creative warren, its engaging daydream layers of footage are important for another reason: Fragile is the first ‘permanent’ moving-image public artwork to be approved by Westminster Council. It has been given permission to be screened daily between the hours of 7am and 1am.

Outdoor moving-image installations in the capital are nothing new, but earlier examples, such as Big 4 – the giant sculpted Channel 4 identity outside the channel’s Horseferry Road headquarters – have not been permanent. Probably a good thing too, since there is a fine art to getting the balance right between intriguing the local passers-by, and annoying the hell out of them with overly-bright or loud multimedia effects. This was something Mark Titchner got spectacularly wrong with his now defunct Find Our World in Yours personalisation of the Big 4 earlier this year. The sound effects very quickly turned to noise.

Interestingly, Fragile employs no audio. Each film is displayed on a sunlight-readable LCD screen, mounted flat into the entranceway of Howick Place. Its designers say the technology can emit sound, but when it does so the effect is deliberately localised to the area immediately above the screen.

It is an arresting idea, requiring prospective viewers to walk right up to the doors of the new building, as it can’t be viewed from any distance.

The films themselves consist of four abstract black-and-white montages depicting fragments of 1950s postal workers as they might have appeared in a time now passed.

‘Fragile celebrates the tradition of postal communication and considers the nature of letter-writing and the performance of the written word. It also alludes to the creative activities that historically occurred on this site, and those that are yet to take place,’ says project curator Deana Vanagan from Artwise.

Khan enlisted the input of a number of fellow creatives, including set designer Naomi Dawson, lighting designer Anna Watson, screen design group Flasma and photographer Thiery Bal. The films were art directed by Collette McWilliams and produced by Pinky Ghundale.

Khan says it was the psycho-geography of the disused sorting office that first came to his attention.

‘I became fascinated that Howick Place was a building that contained so many thoughts and words flooding through it daily, and that its new function would also be a place of ideas and creativity,’ he says.

‘The films show me ripping, throwing and sketching and stamping played in reverse, slowed down or sped up. By manipulating time we enter into a utopian world whereby complicated or easy tasks look beautiful and mesmerising.’

The design team collectively converted Khan’s studio into a replica 1950s postal sorting room built from cardboard and paper, and populated by Royal Mail’s finest.

The monochrome sets feature the long-lost tools of the trade in a typical, old-fashioned mailroom: giant weighing scales, wooden pigeon-holed shelves and large Indian ink-covered rubber stamps. The whole set is, in fact, just a ghostly illusion, though, held together by packing tape and string. Fragile, indeed.

Khan’s work is also something of a signal for a site that intends to get noticed. As well as Phillips de Pury, word is that Howick Place will house a couple of galleries and a famous artist or two, though nothing has been officially announced yet.

Watch out for Howick Place

• Former Royal Mail sorting office in London’s Victoria

• Designed by Squire and Partners as a creative hub for arts and design businesses

• New home of Phillips de Pury, London, designed by Bill Katz

• Designs include a winter garden, a tea salon, a bookshop and a residential space for artists

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