The Daily Telegraph

Rejecting the white cube for the grey tunnel
Saturday, 10 March 2007

How did a flyover become a hip art site, asks Alastair Sooke

Some art galleries are so fashionable that people talk about them as being metaphorically underground. Few, though, can also lay claim to being literally beneath our feet.

He's not for sale: Subway curator Robert Gordon McHarg III with his waxwork Charles Saatchi

But that's the case with the recently opened Subway Gallery in central London, situated in a dingy pedestrian subway hewn out of Brutalist concrete beneath the hulking Marylebone Flyover, which channels traffic high above the Edgware Road.The gallery itself, opened last summer by a 42-year-old artist from Quebec with the majestic name of Robert Gordon McHarg III, occupies a stainless-steel 1960s kiosk that used to be a key cutters' and shoe-repair shop."I stumbled across this place 10 years ago and have wanted to do something here for that long," says McHarg, as sirens screech above our heads. "If you actually walk around the subway, it isn't full of garbage or graffiti. No one's being super-aggressive. There aren't gangs hanging out. It could be such a great showcase. As soon as I opened up the shutters on the first day, the gallery just let out this energy."This isn't empty hype: Subway Gallery quickly ignited the imaginations of creative types. A month after opening, it was used as a location by Vogue for a shoot with the top model Lily Cole. The fashion designer John Galliano popped down a few weeks later to find out more. And the filmmaker Julien Temple chose the gallery as the setting for his music video to the Babyshambles track The Blinding. The finished video includes several shots of Pete Doherty squeezed into the kiosk's tungsten-bright windows.In his cowboy hat decorated with a skull-and-crossbones band, McHarg cuts a charismatic if slightly spaced-out figure. He mounts monthly exhibitions, of his own work as well as artists who have never shown before, along with supplementary shows that spill on to a long, disused wall on one side of the subway, which he has christened the Black Wall. "I see the whole subway as a gallery," he says in his sketchy drawl, with the hint of a stutter, though he refuses to be drawn into the legal minutiae of whether he is entitled to exhibit outside his rented kiosk."The subway is less neglected now I'm here - but art is the only thing that can save it," he says instead, referring to Transport for London's discussions with Westminster Council about alternative plans for the space. As we talk, a crocodile of schoolchildren stop to gawp at the neon-lit fishbowl. McHarg beetles outside, energised by their interest.
In one sense, Subway Gallery is a protest against the commercial white-cube exhibition spaces in the capital's two art hot-spots, east London and Mayfair. McHarg proudly displays a waxwork of Charles Saatchi that he knocked up a couple of years ago. "I was really tired of reading about artists that got bought by Charles," McHarg says. "It was like, 'Such and such an artist sold work for £37,000'. What does that have to do with anything?"
As a result, he created his lifelike dummy and decided never to sell it, even if he spotted Saatchi himself skulking in the subway's shadows brandishing a chequebook. "The idea was to make an artwork that wasn't for sale. In a sense, it's the artist collecting the collector."
Subway Gallery isn't the first gallery to be established in an off-the-wall location. In 2002, Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian art-prankster best known in this country for his mannequin of the Pope squished by a meteorite, launched the Wrong Gallery in New York. It consisted of two-and-a-half square feet of floor space behind a glass door on West 20th Street, and was so successful that a replica ended up in Tate Modern.Part of the appeal of grass-roots projects like these is that they are geared towards artists, not gallerists. As McHarg puts it, "If you've chosen to become an artist, then you're going to need a little help. 
All I can do is encourage people."