Review by Jess Furseth
‘Is this art’’ The man standing next to me in lobby of the Piccadilly Community Centre may be forgiven for asking this question. The entrance hall of the usually swanky gallery space has been turned into a payday loans office, with notice boards crammed with fliers for everything from tango and astrology classes to lung disease support groups. The illusion is complete - all the way from the lobby, throughout the three-storey building and up to the rooftop terrace - this is indeed a local community centre.
Walking past the lobby, computer classes for seniors are taking place to the left, and to the right people are chatting over tea and coffee. Fluorescent lighting is overhead, the two-toned walls are scuffed and a 1980s-tinged décor makes for a space that looks like it’s always been there: pragmatically yet lovingly maintained. I sit down with my maroon and gold cup of instant coffee, joining a group of locals who are talking about what life was like when they were young. Today they’ve brought in photographs from when they first arrived in the West End, to be scanned during the digital photography class later. For the vast majority of visitors, the community centre is taken at face value, and wandering through the halls it is easy to see why.
Even so, this is in fact a piece of art. An installation piece maybe, bordering on performance art, considering the constant participation by local people. The Swiss artist Christoph Büchel is the man responsible for the illusion, but the artist’s name is nowhere to be found, neither at the community centre nor on the website for hosting gallery Hauser & Wirth. Unusually, there is no information at all to provide context, so it’s completely up to the viewer to decide what to make of it.
Up the stairs is a newly built first floor, a fact that seems incredible as the rooms look naturally lived in. The Spanish singing group can be heard through the prayer room and the little gym, complete with hula-hoops and medicine balls lined up by the massive mirror. Up one more floor and there’s a large Geranium charity shop, with a section of some full-on Tory political material: ‘If you want to call your soul your own, vote Conservative.’
The authentic feel of the place makes it difficult to tell what exactly the artist wants to say, but that may be the point. The community centre is an imitation of life: at the lower floors showing local people in positive collaboration, possibly a nod to how the notion of how a ‘Big Society’ can work when done right. Up the final set of stairs, however, you catch a glimpse of the flipside of individual responsibility. The attic space has been turned into a squat, cramped and dark beneath the sloping ceilings. The makeshift living space is complete with dirty dishes and half-eaten food, and the floorboards creak alarmingly as you walk around. You avoid touching any of it not because it’s in a gallery, but because it looks so unsanitary. Over the grubby sofa hangs a Union Jack adorned with an anarchy symbol, and the TV blares, powered by extension cables from the main house. Step back through the attic hatch and you are on the roof amidst tarp-covered deck chairs, empty beer cans and overfilled ashtrays, taking in the amazing view stretching all the way to Piccadilly Circus. The contrast is extreme.
As a work of art, the Piccadilly Community Centre really goes all out. There are hints here and there that reveal the illusion, but they are only really noticeable if you are looking for them. There is a distinct retro feel about it though, accentuated by the presence of ashtrays in the downstairs pub; ‘No smoking or drinks allowed on the dancefloor’, reads the sign by the tinsel-adorned DJ booth. These backwards elements may be there as a nod to how these kinds of places are increasingly rare, but still, for the locals using this space this is neither art nor social commentary. It’s just life, and ooh look, later there’s a botanical drawing class. How lovely.