Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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What's this?

What’s This?

Eileen’s most viewed work was anonymous. It stayed in place for some years and probably caused a smile or two, though the people who saw it were undoubtedly not aware of its origin. We have already seen what she wrote on Brancusi’s Bird in Space. She was aware, though she made no reference in her piece, that a learned art historian had been consulted by the Customs Department, who had impounded the work, on the object’s merits. They asked him if he thought it was art. His reply was, “If this is art, then I’m a bricklayer.” It seems that Eileen decided to take her revenge on the building trade. Her notebooks, as ever, were cryptic. What she wrote reads as if it was intended to be read by her tutor.

“If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s intolerance,” she wrote. “A professor of art - we have a few of those in college! - likened Brancusi’s masterpiece, that beautiful, smooth, polished shape, to the work of a bricklayer.” Now in fact he probably did no such thing, but we will allow Eileen a certain poetic licence.

“Bricklayers, builders, concrete mixers, welders, they are all the same to me. If we are going to get personal on the worth of what people do, let’s consider an example of the building trade to see if it’s more or less intelligible than the imagination of an artist.

“I went to Central London last week to look at some sculptures. I have just learned two new words - caryatids and atlantes. Caryatids are women and atlantes are men, and they both hold up buildings. The word caryatid interests me, because the first syllable sounds like ‘carry’. I had an idea for a work where four classical caryatids in line would support an object with their raised hands, rather like they were carrying a coffin above their heads. The object above them would be a giant stickleback (three-spined) and the work’s title would be Carry A Tiddler.

“I wanted to do some studies, so I took the tube to King’s Cross and then walked down to St. Pancras Church, where there are precisely four large caryatids. My problem is that they are not dynamic enough for my project. They just stand there and take the weight. They are a bit like women, who do the same thing lying down. Their load is on their heads, again like most women, so the trip was not totally successful. Anyway, I sketched them from several different angles and then decided I would play with their arm positions later at home. I crossed the road and set off back to King’s Cross.

“And then I passed the new St. Pancras Library and Shaw Theatre. It’s a non-descript, semi-brutal piece of concrete that architects and builders alike get the blame for, but the real culprit is probably the accountant who cut the budget. Eyesore is far too soft a word for the vision. So, I am almost walking past the main entrance all huffed up and then I see it, an absolute masterpiece of the construction worker’s art.

“It’s by the main entrance, just next to the stairs and wheelchair ramp. It’s a work in concrete and iron, perhaps by Paolozzi or possibly Epstein. It’s far too literal to be a Picasso or a Man Ray. It has no colour, so it’s certainly not by one of the later modernists.

“Set into the concrete are two iron railings that meet, welded, about a foot and a half from the wall, forming a triangle, with the wall making the long side. It’s just there. It does nothing. It does not move. It’s not long enough to chain bicycles to, because you could fix just one bike to it. And the bike would block part of the entrance.

“I stood and looked at it and thought, if this is bricklaying, then I’m an artist. I know it’s not made of bricks, but then who is splitting concrete hairs?

“I waited until after dark. I had already bought a tin of spray paint from one of the hardware shops at the top of Gray’s Inn Road, and I went back to those steps with their artwork to complete my task. I carelessly - deliberately carefully carelessly - spray painted the question, “What’s this?” above the masterpiece. I went back a week later to photograph my work in daylight.”

What’s This? proved to be Eileen’s most enduring work, lasting several years. It must also have been quite popular, because it was removed several times by the local council, but each time someone came at night and repainted it. The solution was to remove the ironwork, which just created a scar in the front wall some years later. Eventually, the entire building was demolished to make way for the new British Library. What’s This? will be remade in our new gallery. As for Carry A Tiddler, there exists no other reference to the work.

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