Conceptual artist Alberto Duman has collaborated on an installation linking London's Waterloo Station to the South Bank. The project typifies his belief that art should communicate directly with the public Normally artwork is installed as the finishing touch to an architectural project - at best an accompanying statement, at worst an alternative to wallpaper. So it is virtually unheard of for an artist to be involved in dictating the terms for the entire design from start to finish.
But this is exactly what happened when architect MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard, lighting specialist Stylus and Alberto Duman, the 35-year-old Italian conceptual artist, were shortlisted from 170 entries to revamp Sutton Walk, a depressingly dingey 50m viaduct under London's Hungerford Bridge. Bang opposite Waterloo Station, it is the most used shortcut to the South Bank complex.
The project, which incorporates an illuminated glass wall and a free-standing mirror entitled 'Monolith', is typical of Duman's work and personal philosophy of making serious social comments in a humorous way. The wall, looking to all intents and purposes like a giant curved neon advert, is a 12mm-thick glass screenprint of a life-size photograph of the original wall that was behind it. At a distance, it is just a ghostly emanation of greenish-white light, but on closer inspection you can see cracks, graffiti and damp patches emerging through the neon traces of crumbling brick.
'It conveys the idea that however much you cover things up or try to hide them, they always resurface, ' says Duman. 'It particularly refers to the glamorisation of the area, which used to be a cardboard city full of homeless people. On an aesthetic level, I also don't like developments where everything is erased and I think the old wall looked great - like an old hag with wrinkles who has seen a lot.'
Equally subversive and witty is the monolith (a direct reference to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey), made up of six light-sensitive panels whose sensors are triggered by the movement of passers-by and become transparent when unlit. 'On one level, it's about personal identity and the ability to lose yourself in a big city, while on another it's an interactive and playful sculpture in the vein of the slightly frivolous wind-operated tower at the Hayward Gallery, ' explains Duman.
Installed over two years at a cost of £300,000, this work is part of the revamping of the South Bank area, which has so far included the redesign of street furniture, signage, new banners and the construction of a river walk between the National Theatre and the Oxo Tower Wharf. With the possibility of so many people walking around the South Bank randomly viewing this work for as long as 20 years (the life expectancy of the signage), Duman says this 'might be the highlight of my career and I would jump at the chance of doing a similar project'. It marks a culmination of his portfolio of socially and politically challenging public art, which has ranged from the reproduction of a council chamber at Gloucester City Museum and Gallery to a treadmill set in a church and spoof outdoor advertising around London.
Despite his love of the absurd, slapstick and the humorous, he is seriously principled - so much so that he recently turned down the chance to create a potentially lucrative installation for a Piers Gough private development in Glasgow's Gorbals district.
'I didn't feel the project management was up to scratch. It seemed to involve mostly selfemployed contractors and I don't agree with this on principle. Ethics are very important to me. For me, it is crucial to put ethics into your work. They're not two separate things.'
Duman's principles have also led him to turn down other private or corporate work that would be seen by a privileged few. 'I would never do a cut-off courtyard piece, ' he says. 'My work needs to be accessible. I believe that art should communicate without intermediaries, which also means without the shroud of art galleries and curators. The potential of public art is enormous and it is this which is going to save art, if anything.'
So what led him to choose MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard, the practice which designed the mega-profile and highglamour Wellcome Wing, to collaborate on this small-scale design and build?
'I wanted to work with John Pritchard, who had designed Southwark Underground Station alongside Aschenko, who produced the glass screen-printed interior. I also admire Richard MacCormac, who had collaborated with six artists on the Phoenix Project in Coventry.
'I met John Pritchard when I was part of Pulse, and we were approaching all the architects for the major Jubilee Line stations.
Unfortunately, London Underground said there was no funding for any installations, but Pritchard was very supportive, unlike Foster, who designed Canary Wharf and didn't even reply to us.'
And the architectural practice did not disappoint Duman either when it came to practical cooperation. Despite having to create concrete foundations and steel masts to elevate the illuminated wall so that Railtrack could inspect the bridge walls behind, Duman found the experience of working with architects, lighting consultant Stylus and structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor a blissful one.
'It was a true partnership with no conflict, ' he says. 'It couldn't have been easier - I was really spoilt. This project has really helped my confidence in that I no longer feel inferior in front of architects and other professionals like I used to. I think this is because unlike most other projects where the value of the art budget amounts to a tokenistic one per cent of the total value, this time I had the advantage of going to the architect with the idea already formed.'
Duman also points out how he made the most of his lack of professional knowledge and experience: 'I could ask naive questions on the lines of 'why not?' when I wanted to push forward ideas of mine, ' he says with a mischievous grin.
In some ways, it may seem surprising that someone who describes his work as 'having a direct and strong socio-economic slant', has agreed to this project. After all, it has been partly funded by the South Bank Employers Group, which numbers such multinationals as Ernst & Young, Shell, and IBM. So how can Duman - who recently went on an anti-war march, who regularly bombards his friends with Friends of the Earth e-mails, and who urges me to look up www. globaliseresistance. org. uk - justify his involvement with these corporate giants?
'The sponsors are as corporate as you can get, but the work is totally public, ' he says.
'Anyway, the installation has no name and there is no plaque. The fact that they pay for it is great, ' he says with that same wry smile.
It is the kind of knowing smile that may appear on drivers' faces when they see his next piece as they motor down the A13 - three giant neon signs on the top of three adjacent tower blocks: they read PEOPLE LIVE HERE in pink capital letters.