The hidden art of Cambridge

Image credit: amandabhslater

When asked about art in Cambridge perhaps your mind might wander to portraits of old white men hanging in halls, King’s College Chapel or of course the Fitzwilliam museum filled with treasures from medieval Italy to Victorian England. However, there are many works of contemporary art hidden in unlikely places and dotted around the city. Below are three examples I have encountered so far, but there are many more to be discovered in colleges, departments and public spaces.

Obscured by foliage high up on a brick wall behind Jesus College Chapel, Claire Barclay’s Shining Potential (2007) is well and truly hidden. Typical of Barclay’s work this piece combines abstracted independent forms to create an assemblage of tiny golden domes, spires and towers. In doing so, Barclay evokes the recognisable rooftop shapes present across Cambridge’s skyline. It is playful, tipping a birds-eye view on its side, rendering majestic and famous architectural features in a scale more familiar to Lego toys and shielding them from view.

While art gallery spaces would not usually be considered ‘hidden’, the subtle and unexpected placement of Cornelia Parker’s untitled work in Kettle’s Yard permits its inclusion in this list. Consisting of hundreds of small marks made in chalk over the window of Helen Ede’s bedroom, it is easy to miss.  Parker’s work toes the line between sculpture, installation and painting; it is two-dimensional yet responds to its environment as whatever appears outside the window ultimately becomes a part of the artwork. The veil of white marks creates a sense of sanctuary, relevant to the work’s location as Ede was reported to frequently retire to her room for peace and recuperation. As the official election artist for 2017, this work also has a political edge: Parker has stated that she thought of Brexit when selecting chalk from the white cliffs of Dover as her material. Her work is part of 'Actions', an exhibition that combines works by contemporary artists with the permanent collection of the recently reopened Kettle’s Yard, open until the 6th of May.

While most of the artworks featured so far can be considered hidden for their unusual and inconspicuous sites, Gormley’s Earthbound: Plant (2002) is almost entirely hidden from view. Placed in the courtyard outside the McDonald Institute of Archaeological Research, Downing Site, two life-size iron footprints stick through the pavement while the rest of the 6ft iron cast of Gormley’s body lies below the surface. In burying his sculpture underground, Gormley plays with notions of performance and conceptual art. Bella Gorman, a first year at Newnham who is writing a short dissertation on the work, argues that in doing so the sculpture becomes a ‘plinth for the observer’: when standing or walking over it they mirror the sculpture’s pose and participate in the artwork.

Though only a glimpse into Cambridge’s hidden art gems, perhaps this might now encourage you to take a closer look as you walk through the city and see what you might find.

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