Art Attack

Armageddon, acid house raves, a jar of solidified wank? HOLLY STEVENSON investigates the weird and wonderful world of creativity in Cambridge.

Art Beast Clare Corpus germaine greer King's Lily Cole New Hall UL

Take it from Art Historian Lily Cole: “Cambridge is really weird.” And there’s nothing weirder than the art work which litters its cosy courtyards, projects itself onto buildings, and hypnotises a multitude of Japanese tourists with whispers of Armageddon.

Germaine Greer may condemn the spinning books outside the UL as “naff” art installations – but if you want a slice of true naffness, Ms. Greer, simply stand atop the “intimidating” UL steps, and cast your gaze straight ahead to the Memorial Court of Clare College, where a piece imaginatively titled “WV 134” has sprung up for no accountable reason. Made by efficient German artist Michael Hischer, the sculpture, due to a unique structure of ball bearings, aluminium and steel, moves in the breeze in a slightly eerily, if not unpleasantly, hypnotic way. Its lurid blue and green colour scheme, however, is more Toytown than Clare College. The overall effect is thus that of Noddy trying to dig for oil in the middle of Cambridge.

The main benefit of the piece appears to be that it provides Clare students with a way of stretching their imaginations, as they struggle to invent extravagant theories to explain the purpose of the installation. These theories range from a means of defence, just in case a horde of evil unstoppable robots decide to attack the FML (the Forbes-Mellon Library, incidentally the only library in Cambridge in which the name perfectly encapsulates the mood of the people within), to convictions that it is in alignment with the stars, in order to provide an astronomical indication that the end of the world is nigh. Some people have naturally resorted to the crude, theorising that it is ‘a jar of solidified wank’.

From Memorial Court, it’s onwards and crapwards, towards King’s College Bridge, where, in an inspired installation that must have seemed a good idea at the time, one solitary tree is rather oddly and spookily lit up in a violent shade of purple. Glance into the Cam and you will be blinded by one acid green flashing light that has led several people to harbour an irresistible urge to hurl themselves into the river. For the 800th anniversary light show, it seemed that central Cambridge had been transformed into an outdoor acid house rave. This funky theme continues as you make your way down Senate House Passage, where you will gaze in confusion at Gonville and Caius’s library, lit up in a fetching shade of lavender (even in broad daylight), and then rejoice in the splendour of the King’s Parade, until you observe that a tragically pathetic strings of green lights have been put up, hardly fit for adorning your Christmas tree.  Perhaps the organisers, realising that you need more than a few projectors for a ‘light show’, had to make a quick dash to IKEA the night before. IKEA evidently only had green and purple lights left.

What is obvious is that Cambridge is bonkers. It is, and always has been, full of bonkers people (I mean, the University did let Germaine in), and the buildings reflect that. Whether it’s the War Memorial standing nonsensically but stubbornly in the middle of the road by the train station, the frankly puzzling green sculpture of the sexually aroused cow at the back of New Hall, or the giant rusty dinosaurs in Jesus that look like someone has taken a hacksaw to a roof; this is the kind of art that made you look, made you stare. 

But what takes the biscuit of Epic Artistic Weirdness is the Corpus Clock, or ‘chronophage’. This Beast of Time is an embodiment of the irony of living in the 21st Century. It’s a spectacular piece, which took 5 years and 200 people to make, and cost a million quid. It incorporates six new patented inventions, and was meticulously and intricately designed. The inventors confidently predicted that it would run accurately for two hundred years.

In reality it stopped three times in its first month of running. Which adheres to the inevitable Noughties pessimism that dazzling technology never really works properly. Computers have hissy fits, iPods die on you, and giant mechanical, gold-plated clocks don’t work, no matter how big the grasshopper on top is. And I’m not even entirely sure how to tell the time with it.

The clock also encompasses the modern idea that, despite our giant leaps in science and technology, if we don’t know how something works, then there must be a conspiracy theory behind it all. Theorists puzzling over the REAL cause of Michael Jackson’s death, and whether men ACTUALLY walked on the Moon, now have a new candidate in their ‘Indicator of Armageddon’ category. Apparently, on the day that the clock that ‘eats time’ was unveiled, the Large Hadron Collider ‘suffered a catastrophic failure’ and the economy failed.  A website has been set up to research the ‘strange occult symbolism embedded within its design.’ Yup, that’s right. The Corpus Clock is in fact a UFO that heralds the end of the world.

So whilst I will forever be forced to cycle just that little bit faster when I pass the ‘ravenous clock’, and am endlessly doomed to endure lurid light displays as I attempt to buy a coffee on the King’s Parade, I must accept the tragic fact that the weirdness of Cambridge’s art reflects the weirdness of this University in general.

It’s what brings in the punters, after all – for who can resist the temptation of employing a bit of poetic license to explain all those kooky installations to Chinese tourists who just want to take photos? “And coming up we have Queens’ Mathematical Bridge, initially built in 1738 from mini-cheddars, but later rebuilt out of wood, after it was eaten by starving students at poorer colleges who had maximised their overdrafts…” Le freak, c’est chic!