Dig

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Inconspicuously nestled in a derelict, half demolished, half rebuilt site just off Tottenham Court Road close to Warren Street Underground Station is an extraordinary installation by London based sculptor, Daniel Silver. It is the latest site-specific installation commissioned by the Artangel Trust, an organization that commission and produces exceptional projects by outstanding contemporary artists. Over the past two decades, these have included, amongst others, Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993-1994), Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave (2001) and Francis Alys’s Seven Walks (2005).

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The site of Silver’s installation is an urban void, surrounded on three sides by eight storied brick facades punctured with blandly functional window openings. It once housed one of London’s large cinemas, Odeon Tottenham Court Road. This huge cinema, providing seating for around 2,500 people opened in 1936 and was the demonstration theatre for 20th Century Fox’s ‘Cinemascope’ technology in 1953. It closed its doors in 1960 and was demolished almost immediately after. Since then it has been used as a car park and is currently owned by the University College London Hospital.

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The site is accessed via a large chicken wire gate, and slopes down a gravel ramp towards a wall covered in graffiti below ground level.

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To the left it drops off down a steep embankment covered with buddleia and other species of urban nature, revealing two levels of framed concrete structure. A temporary scaffold crosses the sloped cutting into this unfinished structure, where Silver’s work is installed on two levels.

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The upper level holds a collection of hundreds of artefacts, some repeated multiple times, neatly laid out on trestle tables or lined up in rows on the floor – bone-like fragments, dismembered limbs, severed heads, half finished torsos, mutant figurines.

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Most are white or off white plaster or clay and some seem to have just been unearthed as they are still covered in mud. Their references are multiple – Minoan Crete figurines, the Terracotta Army, Ancient Greek philosophers, Hindu deities, archaeology, genocide. There is something, if not sinister, then disquieting about their mute, violent and cult-like presence. It is not clear whether one is in a storeroom of the British Museum, a pop-up shop (the trestle tables), an archaeological site or a death camp.

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One descends to the bottom level via a temporary stair into a dank, cavernous space where a group of larger than life figures – bearded male heads on tapering plinths face the back wall.

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To one side, two more complete Egyptian-like figures face towards them. The figures are stoic and resolute. They stand in a few inches of water and mud and battered concrete ballast; as one walks amongst them on the kind of duckboard one would find on a construction site, they transform into sombre silhouettes against the light filtering down the planted outer wall of the unfinished basement.

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The heads are crudely formed and caverned; they look like a group of ancient Greek philosophers frozen in a moment of unknown ritual, or mysterious representatives of a long-ago cult.

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The space is quiet; water drips, light washes, plants breath.

At the end of the duckboard, on a slightly elevated level that compresses and darkens the space, a marble bust bathed in soft light and a bobbly mutant figure reclining on a chaise lounge of sorts come into view.

Photograph by Marcus Leith

Photograph by Marcus Leith

It takes me a while, but I realise that these are the clues to the entire installation.  The bust is of Freud and the chaise lounge is a replica of his couch. The artefacts on the level above are references to the enigmatic objects on Sigmund Freud’s desk.

Freuds Desk. Photography by Edmund Engelman, 1938

Sigmund Freuds Desk. Photograph by Edmund Engelman, 1938

Silver’s installation is not only an excavation of his unconscious and the urban underground, unearthing memories and artefacts that resonate across space and time; it is also homage to the arch excavator, Sigmund Freud. It starts to make sense.

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The site itself renders this more potent. As one descends into it, the sounds and pace of the city recede. Geological time is exposed, the underground revealed. Urban wildness takes over – plants, puddles, rubble, debris and rock.

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Time is arrested. Brick retaining walls, water pumps, lumps of concrete etc. evoke memories of former inhabitations of the site while protruding steel bars and concrete floor slabs suggest times to come.

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The present is a scaffold and an insubstantial chicken wire fence.

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What is inside? What is outside? Where is ground – above, below or alongside? Geology, biology, archaeology, psychology, urbanity, memory and myth double up and mingle.

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