Monday, June 23, 2014

'Deux Chevaux: A Performance by William Mackrell', 21st June 2014

It's Saturday in London and the sun beats down on a grateful city.  In Hyde Park the crowds lobster themselves red, sucking down cider and munching expensive crisps.  Swans slide serenely across the surface of the Serpentine as rays of light glitter up into the sky.  A man is tethering two white horses to a Citroen 2CV.  It's everything you'd expect to find on a balmy June day in the park.  Except that last thing.

Hunkered down at the edge of the waters, surrounded by a gaggle of photographers, journalists, documenters and curious passers-by, a performance is beginning to take shape. Horses contentedly chew hay as competent-looking burly men in pastel polo-necks soberly assess a harness.  Men and women in hi-viz vests eye the whole affair with a vague professional suspicion.  An Irish Wolfhound trots about obliviously, an inscrutable expression on its face.  This soon will be Deux Chevaux; artist William Mackrell out to provide something out of the ordinary for the Saturday parkgoers.

As the horses are harnessed to the car it begins to roll through the park, hooves clop-clopping along the road.  Tourists whip out their phones to snap a quick one for the Instagram feed.  This is an old-fashioned sort of spectacle, a polite intrusion into everyday routine, something "you just don't see everyday".  To give credit to Mackrell the public are eating this up, the journey a parade of gooberish double-takes as the whole affair begins its long trundle around Kensington, Westminster and Chelsea.

Mackrell and co have a busy day ahead of them.  First the Serpentine, then a whistlestop visit around the big Museums, the Royal Albert Hall and various squares before finally wrapping up at Andipa Gallery for celebratory drinks.  Pulling something like this off smoothly and safely is no small order and on chatting to the organisers I learn that this venture has generated vast, teetering stacks of paperwork: applications, permits, explanatory letters and the other detritus of correspondence.  There's such a colossal amount of effort that's gone into this that the idea of making a piece of art about that has been floated.

For most of London's history, the primary method of transportation has been horse-drawn carriage, a privilege now generally only extended to the Lord Mayor and the Queen and her familial subordinates.  Their gilded, fairytale coaches draw gawps from crowds around the world along with coos of "aw, how quaint!".  Bullshit pageantry like this is embarrassing stuff; a medieval aristocratic albatross around the neck of a forward-thinking progressive cities. But, like some gigantic, wizened whale, London has picked up the barnacles of tradition and they're a tricky creature to shake.

Mackrell's piece subverts this high-falutin' ceremonial guff, replacing the chintzy baubles of establishment with Citroen's minimalist classic, the 2CV.  This is the car described as "the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervour". Curved and boxy, it's a tribute to the twin gods of mass production and budget egalitarianism.  The car, famously referred to as the "two horsepower" (deux chevaux) quickly became one of the iconic automotive designs of the 20th century, nestling snugly between the VW Beetle and the Mini.

In realising this nickname, Mackrell explains that he's "challenging the interaction of natural and mechanical power".  The combination binds together the two biggest engines of London transport from the last 1000 years, highlighting both the differences and similarities between the two.  Before things kicked off I stood next to the horses, enjoying that pleasantly nostalgic smell of horse-on-a-hot-day and waxed leather.  This scent was soon joined by another, as the horse interrupted my reverie by taking a splattering dump on the roadside. The horseshit stunk up the place pretty sharpish, but then if you're going to hang around horses you've got to expect this kind of thing.

As I wrinkled my nose, it struck me that the dividing the mechanical and the biological is a false distinction.  Car and horse alike produce waste; the real problem is how you deal with it.  Once we're on the road, horse and car symbiotically bound together, the distinction becomes even blurrier.  Mackrell steers the car, while a coachman spurs on the horses, which tug the car down the street.  Four brains, four wheels, 12 legs, four arms - car, horse and man bound together into one chimera.  As this Frankenstein's monster progresses through London it puts paid to the lie that is "natural and unnatural".  Much as in the horse-drawn car, we're an integral part of a wider, natural whole - the artificial elements within it no less natural than a spider's web or bird's nest. 

Deux Chevaux is a tightly wound bundle of meaning that does a lot with very little.  I'd heard that this has been attempted before, but only in static form - the gallery unable to get permission to actually move the construction through London.  As far as I'm concerned it only works in motion, the harmony of horse and car moving through London like lighting the touchpaper on a firework.  Even on the simple level of a spectacle, Deux Chevaux succeeds: brightening up what was already a pretty damn bright day.  Well done to everyone involved for conceiving, planning and executing this.

Thanks to Andipa Gallery for inviting me along.

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