A bouquet of oversized eggs has burst through the platform at London’s Gloucester Road tube station. All around, their kin are cracking, frying or hatching. What is an egg’s raison d’être? Heather Phillipson, the artist responsible for this chaos, seems to ask. Is it to cradle the inklings of new life, or garnish a supermarket sandwich? Could eggs overturn power relations between humans and animals by exposing our shared origins, or could this be a finger-wagging reminder to commuters who skipped breakfast?
Before I can settle on an answer, a train pulls in to the station, obscuring the view. A group of school children look up from their phones and quizzically eye a large rotating whisk, which has popped up through a slice of burnt toast. The train departs and a tourist poses for a photograph with a bisected boiled egg.
Eleanor Pinfield, Head of Art on the Underground, explains that Phillipson’s installation, which runs for 80 metres along a disused platform, encourages all types of engagement. ‘Someone pausing at Gloucester Road might be bamboozled by the videos’ (the piece includes 12 monitors, each playing an eight-minute film), whereas ‘a regular commuter might slowly unpack her many-layered work over a prolonged period of time’. The comically named my name is lettie eggsyrub satisfies a slapstick urge, but it also queries this knee-jerk response. In Phillipson’s words, the installation ‘enlarges the egg as a nucleus of conflict’ and the symbol comes to represent ‘fertility, strength, birth and futurity, but also, crucially, (over) production, consumption, exploitation and fragility’. Its political resonances are plural.
Like the Gloucester Road piece, each of the seven 2018 commissions for Art on the Underground is Janus-faced. Take Geta Brătescu's bold cover for the tube map, which is currently circulating beneath the city. The Romanian nonagenarian has positioned pink paper triangles across the slim white cover. They are linked together with black ‘V’s, drawn with a marker. It’s a balanced design taken from the artist’s series ‘Game of Forms’ (2009–ongoing), and, with its graphic simplicity, it could be of the tube’s Frank Pick era (Pick was Managing Director of the London Underground in the 1920s and commissioned some of its most iconic designs: the red, white and blue roundel tube logo, the Johnston typeface).
However, there’s more to Brătescu’s work than pure design. As a leading figure in Romanian conceptualism, she explains that ‘Game of Forms’ is the result of ‘drawing with scissors’. The collage is an artefact, a preserved form of action. Jessica Vaughan, one of the curators, explains that the aim is to present challenging contemporary art to a wide section of the general public, including those who wouldn’t choose to visit a gallery. ‘You have to sneak it through the cracks’, she confides.
The 2018 programme is part of #BehindEveryGreatCity, a campaign by the Major of London, Sadiq Kahn, to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage. In a nod to the anniversary, Art on the Underground have commissioned an all-women line-up. Refreshingly, and unusually, the project does not present ‘women’s art’ as a sub-genre but demonstrates the diversity of their artistic practice: 90-year-old Brătescu’s conceptual map was released at the same time as the young French artist Marie Jacotey’s figurative night tube cover. Rather than making a show of representing historically excluded artists – or, worse, suggesting that their inclusion is a generous gesture – the choices appear incidental. These are seven artists making exciting contemporary art – oh, and they also happen to be women.
Artists have historically drawn inspiration for their subterranean commissions from surface-level locations: think of the Charing Cross mural by David Gentleman (1978), which depicts a medieval workforce building the original Charing Cross or, more prosaically, Michael Douglas and Pamela Moreton’s deerstalker silhouettes at Baker Street (c.1983), which reference Sherlock Holmes, the street’s most famous (fictional) resident. The new programme of commissions is equally site-specific. The American / Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose Brixton murals will open in September, is interested in the minutiae of a place. Vaughan describes accompanying the painter to a South London market and stumbling across the precise lamp for a domestic scene: ‘She wants local people to recognize things in the mural as objects they have at home.’
But, in today’s London, what constitutes home is changing. Property speculation has demolished, repurposed and clad the built environment. In bespoke courtyards and on urban village greens, glinting public art is often a gift no one wished for. It’s a box-ticking exercise to satisfy a planning regulation, or, to its critics, an exercise in artwashing a beige new-build: a gilt-coating for a developer’s guilty conscience (see Sarah Lucas’s ‘turd on the plaza’, a shiny example of public art at its most vapid). More than half of the 1,900 ultra-luxury apartments built in the capital last year did not sell. Rather than art for the community, these are objects for future residents, who may never move in.
But far beneath the penthouses of skyscrapers, below their basement health suites, down under the foundations, something else has taken root. Whether it is Phillipson’s critique of human/animal relations, or Crosby’s site-specific mural, or even by commissioning an all-women programme, Art on the Underground has created public art for the here and now. In tunnels under the city, the urgent issues of 2018 are being discussed by forthright women’s voices. It feels conspiratorial.
Main image: Heather Phillipson, my name is lettie eggsyrub, Gloucester Road Station, London, 2018, commissioned by Art on the Underground. Courtesy: Art on the Underground; photograph: G.G. Archard