A gallery on wheels: the Abbey Taxi

Alba Ziegler-Bailey 5 October 2007

The Abbey Taxi comes as a surprise. Tucked away beyond Newmarket Road, well off the beaten student track, artist Kirsten Lavers’s front garden sports an old black cab. The taxi is also a gallery, an advertising billboard, a radio station and a WiFi hotspot. The only thing it can’t do is give you a lift home–the motor hasn’t worked for years.

Kirsten Lavers inherited the taxi in 2000 for a project called ‘Things Not Worth Keeping’. She did, however, hold on to the cab, turning it into the Taxi Gallery in 2002. For three years the taxi housed an eclectic series of installations, each created for the unique space the taxi offers. Then, in 2005, the Taxi Gallery closed and the Abbey Taxi branched out and began hosting not only artists’ works, but also a garden (complete with recorded birdsong), a radio station and a magnetic message service, whereby anyone can suggest a message to be spelled out on the body of the cab with magnetic letters. The messages range from the eminently practical, ‘Need a handy man? Ring Dave. Low rates’ to the poetic, ‘Keep the background simple’ to the plain bizarre ‘Rab’s Fiery Wart’ (an anagram of ‘Strawberry Fair’).

What is it that makes the Abbey Taxi so attractive to the artists, garden historians and handymen who use it to display their work? Lavers points out the symbolic function of the taxi. The motorised Hackney carriage is a national design icon. The curve of the roof over your head and the smell of the leather seats make getting into a cab a pleasant sensory experience–it is the holy grail of exhibition organisers, ‘a great space’. The black cab also carries unique associations for each person. Memories of past cab trips are conjured up as you step into the back of a taxi, even though this particular taxi isn’t going anywhere.

Like all cabs, the Abbey Taxi is a place of conversation. There are cushions on the back seat printed with taxi driver-style questions that are actually quite difficult to answer: ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘What do you think?’–instant conversation sparkers. “It’s a great place to come for a chat,” says Lavers, “and the magnetic messages transform the vehicle from a container of words to that of a messenger, sending information to the outside.” The Abbey Taxi performs this messenger role in other ways. A local radio broadcast its first shows from the back of the cab, and a WiFi connection allows local foreign students to communicate with home. It’s easy to imagine the Abbey Taxi as the culmination of threads of communication, drawing people in as well as sending messages out.

I ask Kirsten what the future holds for the Abbey Taxi. “I’d love to make a book to properly catalogue everything the taxi’s done” she replies. “Maybe I will, soon. But I don’t think the taxi has quite finished its journey yet.”

Alba Ziegler-Bailey