Statues @ Menier Chocolate Factory

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 93 months ago
Statues @ Menier Chocolate Factory
The front of the Menier Chocolate Factory
The front of the Menier Chocolate Factory
This rocking horse will be part of a new installation soon...
This rocking horse will be part of a new installation soon...
Current plinth occupant: bear on a motorbike
Current plinth occupant: bear on a motorbike
The Menier's roof garden: what you can't see from the train
The Menier's roof garden: what you can't see from the train
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If you recognise this bear, chances are you catch the train between London Bridge and Waterloo East. Maybe one of his predecessors will jog your memory: how about the Greek half-head statue resting on a toilet? Or the white 2D cat? If you haven't got a clue what we're on about then you're missing out on one of London's best kept, and most fun, art secrets: the plinth at the back of the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Visible only from the railway lines, for the last few years this plinth has hosted some rather odd objects which intrigued and amused commuters. But nobody really knew what they were and why they were there. Once this little fella turned up we knew we had to go and ask.

Don Riley, property developer and owner of the Menier Chocolate Factory, says they put the sculptures up for fun, just to make the space more visually appealing. "Art shouldn't be locked away in private, dull spaces," he says (he's not a fan of Tate Modern), and our public places should be pleasant places to be in, citing examples of European cities that turn a scrap of unused land into a playground with greenery.

But it turns out that, where we just wanted to know why there was a bear riding a motorbike next to our regular commute, there's a deeper philosophy at work. Riley is a businessman, not a philanthropist, and while the statues may be fun, he's not doing this for a laugh. He talks about "cultural leverage": the theatre, restaurant, bar and art gallery at the Menier is only part of the building, the rest is office space. The lure of working in the same building means rents can be set at a premium - a high enough premium, in fact, to cover any shortfall from the arts (which is itself unlikely. The theatre is usually full and the restaurant does excellent food even without the appeal of their meal deals).

There are no state subsidies round here, a fact of which Riley is proud. "Theatre shouldn't be stand alone," is his theory, it should be integrated with other things to keep it going. You only have to look at their clutch of Tony, Olivier and Evening Standard awards to see it's a model that works. It's certainly a viewpoint that's had us pondering, particularly with the news that a new development next door will hold a second theatre.

Returning to the statues... from the train it might look as if the plinth is the height of a two storey building but the truth is, there's a terrace garden just out of sight of the railway line, growing fruit and running to a beautiful wilderness. Sometimes the installations are made by Menier resident artists (Michael Speller produced the sculpture of the elongated body, poised as if about to dive or embark on an elaborate ballet dance), but most of the time they are stuff that Riley and his friends and employees have put together. In the near future, look out for a rocking horse and a doll's house, which should have some interesting inhabitants.

Last Updated 02 July 2010