In an extract from his new book, Everything You Know About Art Is Wrong, Londonist editor-at-large Matt Brown has an epiphany in King's Cross.
I remember getting very excited in 2009, when it was announced that the London Underground was to get its first permanent work of art for a quarter of a century.
The piece, known as Full Circle by Knut Henrik Henriksen (born 1970), was installed in the remodelled passages of King’s Cross tube station. I went along the next day, not really knowing what to expect other than a large-scale artwork somewhere in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath King’s Cross. I couldn’t find it.
Eventually, I tracked the piece down to the end of a corridor on the Northern line. It consists of nothing more than a lip-shaped piece of metal, upended like a lopsided crescent moon. ‘Is that it?’ I thought. Couldn’t they have done something more imaginative? At the time I dismissed Full Circle as a worthless bit of art that anyone could have cobbled together.
It’s a charge often levelled at modern art in general, and conceptual art in particular. So what was going on at King’s Cross? I should have been tipped off by the title of Full Circle. That lip of metal represents the missing piece of any tunnel on the London Underground, the part that completes the full circle.
Most of the subterranean tubes of the underground network were bored out with circular cutting heads. Yet we never see the lower part of that cross-section. It is always filled with track beds and rails, while the pedestrian passages are levelled off to provide flat floors. I’ve travelled thousands of miles by London Underground. I’ve written dozens of articles about the tube. And yet I’d never once considered this invisible portion of tunnel*.
It took me years to work it out, but that seemingly mundane installation had caused me to reconsider an
environment I thought I knew intimately. That moment of revelation was as magical as anything seen in an Old-Master painting or Impressionist fancy. It was then that I realised the power of conceptual art. It requires work on the part of the viewer, but that makes it all the more potent and personal when you finally ‘get’ it.
I’ve passed by Full Circle on numerous occasions. I’ve never once seen anybody stop and consider the work. It hides in plain sight, and is easily mistaken for a random bit of wall panelling. It is quite possibly the most bypassed piece of art in the world. Millions ignore it every year. All of which makes the work even more special... once you’re in on the concept.
*Footnote: I've since learnt from Transport for London that the space beneath the tube's track beds is entirely filled in. Other subterranean rail systems, like Mail Rail, have left the hidden crescent beneath platforms intact, as this photo shows:
Abridged from a wider piece on conceptual art in Everything You Know About Art is Wrong by Matt Brown, published by Batsford. Illustration by Sara Mulvanny. Follow @ekyiswrong on Twitter for a daily dose of unexpected trivia.
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