Sarah Sze, installation view of Metronome, 2023. Photo: © Sarah Sze, Thierry Bal

Sarah Sze and Monster Chetwynd: Transporting Art

Two recently opened art installations in London are injecting new life into disused spaces within the transport system. Commissioned by Art on the Underground, British artist Monster Chetwynd has created a work that spans an 80-meter disused platform at Gloucester Road tube station in west London, while across the city in south London, American artist Sarah Sze—co-commissioned by Artangel—has intervened in an old Victorian waiting room at Peckham Rye train station. There are myriad differences between these two artists, their work, and the spaces they have used for these particular projects, yet both installations exploit the spatial possibilities of railway and Underground real estate to take travelers on another sort of journey entirely.

Entering Gloucester Road tube station at street level, posters, leaflets, and a short film (the full-length version is accessible via a QR code) signal the presence of Pond Life: Albertopolis and the Lily (2023), installed on an old below-ground platform. Still, nothing quite prepares you for Chetwynd’s flamboyant sculptural intervention, which has to be viewed from an adjacent platform. Depending on the arrival and departure of working Underground trains, the installation is periodically obscured almost entirely. Passengers in transit can also see the work as their trains enter the station, stop at the platform, then build up speed for departure. 

Monster Chetwynd, installation view of Pond Life: Albertopolis and the Lily, 2023. Photo: GG Archard

Wherever viewers are positioned, Pond Life unlocks the histories of the surrounding tube station, which opened in 1868, and its place within Victorian-era cultural developments in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Housed in the specially built Crystal Palace, the Great Exhibition attracted more than six million visitors (around a third of the U.K. population at the time), and its proceeds funded the building of the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Science Museum—all located along Exhibition Road, a destination known colloquially as Albertopolis, which was served by two new tube stations: South Kensington and Gloucester Road. When Chetwynd took a deep dive into the history of Gloucester Road, she became captivated by the story of Joseph Paxton, whose revolutionary designs for the Crystal Palace were rooted in the natural world. 

Pond Life features five four-meter-diameter, sculpted disks placed along the length of the platform. Each high relief is populated with frogs, salamanders, tortoises, and dragonfly larvae that, together, appear to be industriously constructing sections of the Crystal Palace; a lone salamander standing beneath a lily pad umbrella at the end of the platform provides a witty addition. The design of the disks gestures to the commemorative coins, medallions, and other souvenirs created for the Great Exhibition. Up at ground level, the film (made by artist-filmmaker Margaret Salmon), connects viewers to the reasoning behind the sculptures. The childlike sense of fun in Pond Life is joyous and uplifting. As Chetwynd said a few years ago, “I believe in keeping morale high,” and that is precisely what she’s done at Gloucester Road.

Monster Chetwynd, installation view of Pond Life: Albertopolis and the Lily, 2023. Photo: GG Archard

Once an essential space for travelers to await the arrival of their trains, the Victorian waiting room at Peckham Rye train station has been boarded up for the last 60 years. It is now rejuvenated as a temporary home for Metronome (2023), Sze’s newest “Timekeeper” work, a mesmerizing large-scale installation that transforms the vaulted space. When the waiting room opened in 1865, rising industrialization had already brought with it a need for time to be regimented and synchronized. Factory workers punched in and out. Clocks were installed on public buildings across Britain, including Big Ben in 1859. “Railway time” coordinated across stations aligned schedules throughout the country. Just as the arrival of the railway in the 19th century upended existing ideas of time and space, today’s social networks have instigated another fundamental shift, allowing us to share and re-share images and information at a staggering rate. It is estimated that five billion photos are taken every day on smartphones across the globe, with around double that number being shared—a historically unprecedented inundation that can be overwhelming in its intensity. Metronome reflects on such experiences.

At the heart of the darkened waiting room, a metal armature of thin stainless steel tubing traces an opened-out planetary structure that supports torn pieces of paper and cardboard onto which moving images are projected. This friable central structure, with its ever-changing, flickering images, gestures to the unstable and precarious nature of our world. Around it, the walls and ceiling are also lit up with fragments of moving images projected from more than 40 devices embedded within the work. Reminiscent of a magic lantern, Metronome dazzles and bewilders; and like the ubiquitous smartphone, it generates innumerable images and showers us with them in a barrage that spins vortex-like with flux and force. As Sze explains it: “I’ve always been interested in certain times throughout history where our relationship to the way we experience time and space in the world speeds up radically. The invention of the airplane, the invention of the train, you see really interesting work coming out of that time, in film, visual arts, and writing. We are in the middle of an extreme hurricane where we are learning to speak through images at an exponential pace.” The idea of a hurricane of images is just right, although within “The Waiting Room,” as the exhibition is called, viewers are cocooned and safe from harm. The irony of Sze’s address to infinite image overload and the precipitous pace of change is that, somehow, visitors are mesmerized, and time itself seems to slow. A metronome, accompanied by ambient sounds, marks out time, which adds to the meditative nature of the experience. 

Sarah Sze, installation view of Metronome, 2023. Photo: © Sarah Sze, Thierry Bal

That Sze places viewers within a three-dimensional collage is not surprising. She sees “both painting and sculpture through the lens of collage and look[s] for a state in which a work is both becoming and degrading before you. I’m trying to find the moment that feels volatile or live.” The experience of Metronome is certainly one of volatility and liveness. There is a distinct feeling that things could go either way, that this patchwork of moving images could cohere and become more permanent or disintegrate completely. As images shine, shift, overlap, and fade away, the viewer is implicated, too, the body becoming an additional canvas for the ecological and technological developments on display. This temporary mark of time and place upon face, body, and limb further opens up a psychic space, as the imagination is brought into play, and viewers, it is hoped, take up Sze’s concerns as their own. Technology may be propelling the human race forward in unimaginable ways, but Sze’s message tends toward failure, collapse, and entropy.

Though Sze and Chetwynd treat the past differently, ultimately, both artists have used their historical sites to create spaces in the present for travelers to stop and look. Amid the bustle, boredom, and weariness of travel, their installations open up a space in which to question and reflect on the world around us. In each case, there is a sense that we are being prompted to consider our individual responsibilities for the past, the present, and the future. 

“Sarah Sze: The Waiting Room” is on view at Peckham Rye Station through September 17, 2023. Monster Chetwynd’s Pond Life: Artopolis and the Lily is on view at Gloucester Road Station through May 2024.