Ringing the changes
An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty: Richard Wentworth At General Plumbing Supplies, 66 York Way, London N1 until 17 November
The former King's Cross railway yards are famously 'Europe's biggest urban development site'. For Artangel's latest project, Richard Wentworth, who has lived near here for 25 years, has taken over the disused General Plumbing Supplies for 10 weeks, remodelled it, and opened it to the public. It will function as an information centre for An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty, hosting walks, talks, films, a ping-pong tournament and more. It looks and feels like a scruffy youth club, but it is a deft, subtle, witty work of art.
Wentworth has rummaged through the plumbers' detritus; snipped, rearranged, and added bits and pieces. Old maps of London are pinned to the walls, on which you cannot help but look for your own street, track its history and place yourself in the city. Shop mirrors placed here and there capture unexpected views. The table tennis tables are painted with local street plans. Videos show map-making and street-marking. A-Z jigsaws, guides, and tips for passing 'The Knowledge' are for sale at the counter.
Up a slightly wobbly tower, you can peer through a periscope into neighbouring windows or across the old goods yards.Old signs make new words and new connections: the neon 'Plumbing' sign now reads 'ping', and unafraid of the obvious, a big roughly painted 'LOOK' points away down the street.
Wentworth makes sculpture, photographs, and collections that adapt and reform what he sees and finds, making new conjunctions. They do not fit the familiar order of things, but they are emphatically not accidental or contrived. At some time or other, everything has been designed, or made, or placed.
Along with 'urban explorers' such as Patrick Keiller (who will show his 1993 film London here on 30 October), Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, Wentworth is preoccupied with place, things, and memory, but the city is both his subject and medium. As a result, Unnatural Beauty has an immediacy and accessibility the others sometimes lack. Applied to the General Plumbing Supplies, his method invites the viewer simply to look and ask.
There were anxious opening night enquiries about what was art and what was not, but the answer mattered less than the question. Wentworth did not need to touch some of the best things, like the big sign for 'Plumbing Supplies' listing the basic ingredients of the city: 'manhole covers, cement, waste disposal, electrical goods, copper pipe', etc. His approach is apparently casual, but if the job of an artist is to persuade people to look for themselves, and see things afresh, he is remarkably successful.
The project's title subverts the dreary legislation of preservation, and raises the question: should we, or can we, preserve what is wonderful about this place? The past is at the centre of Unnatural Beauty, but ifit merely indulged in picturesque decay it would be no more than National Trust nostalgia. In fact Wentworth has achieved the opposite: a joyous riposte to those who think change means loss, and for whom character and identity (particularly Englishness) exist only in the past.
Wentworth seeks out the odd, the abandoned and the ephemeral and finds unexpected beauty and meaning. He explores the gaps and cracks of the city, and King's Cross is the biggest gap of all. He does not make monuments, and he is fundamentally optimistic. Contrast his response to the post-industrial landscape with Train, David Mach's 1997 tombstone for the railway age in Darlington.
Located on the brink of the King's Cross site, the project cannot avoid confronting the fear of soullessness and exclusion inescapably linked with modern urban development, but Wentworth does what planning consultation can never do - he gives individuals the means to understand the place for themselves.
Artangel has promoted some of the most ambitious urban art of the past 10 years.
Compared with the best known, such as Rachel Whiteread's House (1993) or Michael Landy's Breakdown (2001), Wentworth's intervention may seem modest (it is only the stage on which the rest of the project will play), but what it says about the city is more complex and important. He challenges the office blocks and CCTV that threaten King's Cross, not by standing in front of bulldozers but by delighting in the vital, common experience of the city, recognising that only individual engagement can maintain and enrich that experience.
Wentworth's conceptual recycling is profoundly democratic: he celebrates change and continuity - the life, not the death, of the city. You leave General Plumbing Supplies not with an idea or an image but seeing your surroundings in a different way.
Michael Copeman is an architectural historian and writer. There are associated events every Wednesday evening at 18.30 until 13 November (Tickets £5). A leaflet with a selfguided walking tour of the area will be available at General Plumbing Supplies from 25 September. Further details from www.
artangel. org. uk