by Vatsala SethiOct 04, 2022
From May 2023 to May 2024, Art on the Underground—a contemporary public art undertaking by Transport for London, is presenting Pond Life: Albertopolis and the Lily, a new project by Monster Chetwynd at Gloucester Road tube station in London, United Kingdom. The eccentric and irreverent British artist, who has formerly been known as Spartacus Chetwynd and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, has created a sculpture art intervention that spans the entirety of Gloucester Road Tube’s platform and features three-dimensional frogs, tortoises, salamanders and more.
Pond Life is among a series of installations in public spaces that seek to enhance the way millions of Londoners experience their city every day and joins Art on the Underground’s many critically acclaimed projects that are accessible to each and every commuter within the city. Art on the Underground has involved a wide roster of UK-based and international artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Mark Wallinger and Jeremy Deller, and through its support for projects such as Pond Life, continues to occupy a place of prominence within contemporary discourse around art’s role in public spaces.
The project launches itself from a point of inspiration drawn from the life and work of gardener-turned-architect Joseph Paxton, along with his famous architectural accomplishment, the Crystal Palace. The palace was a massive structure designed to house The Great Exhibition of 1851, which was staged by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria and is regarded as a watershed moment in colonial history whereby British monarchy and leaders of industry demonstrated the purported superiority of the English people over the “other”—the many colonised cultures that fell under the crown. Funds acquired from The Great Exhibition’s ticket sales would subsequently be put to use in constructing the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum in the same area along Exhibition Road. These British museum institutions collectively created a cultural sector of the city known as ‘Albertopolis,’ and Gloucester Road Tube station is one of two London underground stations that were opened in due course, in order to service this area.
The British architect Paxton held a vision for the venue that was informed by the Amazonian water lily’s form, and Chetwynd has extended his aquatic theme through her public sculpture work, with her creatures hard at work building the palace. Pond Life is the latest among the artist’s works that mash together childlike joy with serious topics of inquiry, and masterfully injects her historic examination into the Crystal Palace and its implications with an offbeat theatricality, bringing these two seemingly disparate pursuits together in order to shed light on human society and motivation. As is the case here, Chetwynd often collaborates with a collective composed of friends and family members that create a sense of unpredictability within her practice, and enhance the playful irreverence that she has developed a reputation for.
The artist discusses her motivations behind this project, telling STIR, “I love travelling by public transport. I have always loved the London Underground.” She recalls holding a fascination for the transit system ever since she was a child, and realising that she was far from alone in celebrating London’s subway once she entered her teenage years, which is when she watched Babylon. The film was released in 1980 and features the Underground prominently in its examination of dub culture and racism in the UK. Chetwynd continues, saying, “I find the deep tunnels that allow for fast journeys to be quite cathartic. I have had many adventures on the Underground and am also a fan of other films that feature it, such as John Betjemans's Metroland (1973).” The artist feels a sense of pride that the London Underground is one of the earliest ever built, which is a fact that she was aware of even as a child. However, she only recently learned the history of the Gloucester Road Tube station, after she was invited to create art at the site. In her words, “The local history is surprising and very inspiring.”
Chetwynd’s intervention at Gloucester Road Tube is accompanied by a film shot by artist-filmmaker Margaret Salmon, which expands on the narrative developed by the sculptures. Who Named the Lily, as it is titled, features Chetwynd garbed as a flying witch in a bejewelled leotard, staging playful interviews with historians and academics in order to shed light on Paxton’s ingenuity and the architectural importance of the Crystal Palace. Salmon’s filming locations include Chatsworth House, The London Transport Museum, and the Natural History Museum, where the artist travels to as The Fact Hungry Witch, intent not to take up an apologist stance through her investigative reportage, but rather to acknowledge the indivisible marriage between the histories of Victorian innovation and colonialism.
Chetwynd comments on her decision to undertake multiple site-specific projects, “Instead of making one piece of work in response (to the site), I have made two. I have made sculptures to be on display on the disused platform, along with a film to connect people to the reasoning behind the sculpture installation works. The process of making these two works has been epic in my opinion! By researching events that are ‘Victorian,’ I have opened the lid on how the British Empire is so close to our reality even though we don't realise it.”
Chetwynd’s approach to creating art inspired by historical fact is a breath of fresh air within a discourse that often blindly decries perceived villains or meekly skirts hard questions. There is an earnestness at play here which must be lauded. And certainly, that is to say nothing of the sheer entertainment value Londoners must have drawn from engaging with Chetwynd the witch, and her oddball troupe. The artist ends her conversation with STIR, leaving us with these parting words: “I would like to say that I have been inspired by aspects of Victorian engineering history, along with its political and economic context. The poetic connection between a lily from the Amazon that smells of pineapple and entraps beetles in its pink interior overnight, and the arches and rumbling tunnels of Gloucester Road, needs to be brought forward. How history is re-examined and allowed to be accessible is also in need of discussion. The Art on the Underground commission has allowed this opportunity, and I am the artist who volunteered to lift the lid.”