Long before Gabriel Orozco took temporary tenancy of 50 St. James's Street in Piccadilly in the spring and summer of 1996, the imposing building in the heart of London's historic clubland had been vacated. The interiors had been stripped out and neutralised, all signs of previous lives had been erased. Apart from the presence of the doorman Mr Stubbs (he was indeed a distant descendant of the great English painter of horses and heredity), there was nobody in the place. The lights were on, the air conditioning hummed discreetly, the interior was impeccably clean. But, with the occasional exception of maintenance men and prospective purchasers, nothing and nobody disturbed its inertia. 50 St. James's Street was laid out and dressed up for inspection like a once active body from which life had now drained away: an entity of spaces and surfaces, but whose substance appeared to have evaporated.
As a result of some initial conversations in 1994, Gabriel Orozco and I spent time in London the following year looking for a particular kind of building. Our research was guided by three conditions. Firstly, we were looking for a prominent building from the 18th or 19th centuries, a building which embodied the self-confidence of the period when "Britannia ruled the waves". Secondly, it was necessary for the building to be located right in the middle of London, since Orozco's ongoing enquiry into the relationship between the periphery and the centre needed a place in the centre of this world centre and not one on the periphery. And thirdly it needed to be empty. Orozco had spent time in the summer of 1995 in some of the large parks in the centre of the city, and the building we hoped to find was conceptualised as a kind of interior park offering an unhurried, leisurely experience in which the visitor could relax, reflect and play -a place to be in, as well as look at things in (a working title for the project wasParque). In the spring of 1996, after extended negotiations with several owners of vacant buildings, Artangel signed a temporary lease on 50 St. James's Street and Orozco was able to develop his ideas in situ. The "Building to Let" signs remained on the ground floor throughout our occupancy.
In 1828, the grandiose building at 50 St. James's had opened to its privileged public as Crockford's "Temple of Chance". It was one of the first official gambling dens in London -a centre of rapidly circulating currency at the heart of the city then establishing itself as the global hub of capital. Crockford's was only a short carriage ride away from the older seats of power in London, St. James's Palace and Buckingham Palace. But it was in even closer proximity to the Gentlemen's Clubs which had begun to emerge in mid-18th century London (at a judicious distance from the Palaces) as rival groups of aristocrats, progressives, Whigs and Tories manoeuvred for positions of influence within a fast-changing political landscape. The "Temple of Chance" stood right at the heart of Establishment London and directly across the road from one of the most established, and conservative, of the Clubs, White's. Whilst Empty Club was opened up to the general public in the summer of 1996, White's continued to welcome its gentlemen members into its private rooms opposite.
Crockford's was a place where fortunes made from elsewhere —the income from large landed estates but also from the newer industrial enterprises in the North of England and the profits from the colonial trades in the West and East Indies— were won and lost on the turn of a wheel. But the gaming club's breathless turnover of capital was eventually assimilated into the quieter, more comfortable rhythms of a Gentlemen's Club. In 1874 it became the Devonshire Club. No longer a casino celebrating the ecstatic mobility of money, it became a building which, like its façade, stood for a belief in the stability of certain values, and represented a quiet but unquestionable sense of status and self-importance. It remained the Devonshire Club through the rest of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, as British power reached its global zenith and then, like the landed classes from which the Club drew much of its membership, entered a protracted period of decline until it closed in 1976.
In the early 1980s 50 St. James's Street was acquired by new owners and refurbished at exorbitant expense. Ersatz historical carpets, wall marbling, curtains and chandeliers were installed in the grand rooms; monochrome carpets, standard fixtures and fittings in the rooms on the upper floors. Any texture, sign or smell of its past was eradicated. There were no signs of decay, no reminders of what the place had been. 50 St. James's was sanitised and neutralised, voided of nostalgia or charm. The décor and paraphernalia of the gentlemen's club was replaced with the anomie of the international office interior: the corpse of the club restored as a prospective corporate H.Q. The bland spaces on the upper floors of 50 St. James's could have been in any large office in any modern city, their anonymous neutrality no less a statement of power than the imposing classical orders of the building's far;ade or the sweeping staircase up to the first floor. Two different kinds of club which both regard the world as their preserve, two overlapping realities elided in Orozco's London project.
As its title suggests, both the erased history and present state of 50 St. James's were integral to Empty Club. On one level, the emptiness existed as a series of open interior expanses —landscapes to position things in and animate in a variety of ways. But the emptiness was more than that: it was a material with which and through which Orozco could set in play a series of dualities, of centre and periphery, mobility and stability, creation and recreation, irregularities, systems and rules. In its totality, Empty Club was both a reflection on some universal conditions of physical existence in a very neutral environment and an inflection of specific conditions of culture in a very particular environment —an empty building which embodied the particular historical experience of a powerful colonial culture. Working with the laws of motion and the rules of culture, Empty Club was both meditation and metaphor: a place for relaxation, reflection and play.
Orozco's interest in the nature of emptiness has involved research into a school of philosophy known as Atomism, originating in the speculations of Pythagoras in the 5th Century B.C. When the Atomists proposed that objects and things were constituted by atoms in motion rather than solid matter, they didn't only propose a model of volatility and contingency beneath the surface of stability: they also posited the central importance of emptiness to any idea of mobility. Without emptiness —or the void— there could be no space for the atoms to move within. His engagement with these laws of physics, and their implications for a world-view based on movement and not stasis, and for a view of history more cyclical than linear, manifested itself in a sequence of sculptural meditations in the form of remodelled sports and pastimes. Around the walls of one empty floor, he installed a succession of large computer prints entitled The Atomists, based on photographs Orozco had found on the sports pages of British newspapers such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer —all no doubt also read at leisure by the gentlemen members of the Devonshire Club. On the floor above, an avenue of 'moon trees' with white paper discs inserted into artificial green trees stood adjacent to an area for bowls. On the top floor, a model of a cricket ground showed a scene in which the players and spectators had become trees. And in the basement, a solitary computer was marooned like a relic of a disappeared culture, reproducing its coloured patterns ad infinitum, perhaps until the end of time. The inertia of the building was broken both by the works on different floors of the building, and by the peripatetic movement of visitors within the Club. 50 St. James's was a 'stabile' turned into a 'mobile'.
Right at the heart of this imposing, inanimate building, and at the core of Orozco's project, the visitor encountered a tiny, moving centre. At the centre of a building in the centre of a city which considered itself to be the centre of the world, a red billiard ball hovered just above the green baize of an oval billiard table. Inspired by Foucault's pendulum which, in the 17th century, had given empirical evidence to the proposition that the earth was not the still centre around which the planets orbited, but was itself a mass rotating around the sun, the red ball was a perpetuum mobile. The destruction of certainties implicit in Foucault's exposition was echoed by the construction of the game without its conventional limits and rules. The billiard table's traditional rectangular shape was transformed into an oval. The game was possible, indeed enjoyable, to play, but it was one in which the rules, the scores, the limits had to be rethought or invented. The movement of the balls, like planets in the cosmos or atoms in a demonstration of the laws of physics, fractured the silent suspense of the sleeping building: the sharp retort of the white ball cracking against the red, setting the pendulum in orbit around and beyond the limits of the table, set many of the ideas informing the conception and realisation of Empty Club in motion.
As a counterpoint to the continual movement of the red billiard table, Orozco installed on the top floor a static model of another game with arcane rules and etiquette revolving around the movement of a small red ball in a large green landscape —cricket. The model's origins lie in a visit Orozco had made in the summer of 1995 to Lord's cricket ground in London —without doubt both the sports ground in England and the sport which most specifically embodies the relationship between organised games, rules and the British Empire (Lord's, incidentally, is still referred to by its gentlemen members as H.Q.). The stilled 'scene' of the ground, in which players and spectators alike have metamorphosed into trees, derives from a dream Orozco had in which the famous passage in Macbeth "Till Birnan forest come to Dunsinane" —soldiers disguised as trees begin to advance on Macbeth's stronghold— shifted to the landscape of Lord's. As the past and future of 50 St. James's were collapsed by Orozco into some uncertain present, the players and spectators in the model lose their separate identities. They are all now merged into a scenario with unknown rules. A model of nature reclaiming culture, of the overwhelming of empire by the invading spectator-trees, of the rise and fall of different systems and states? The leather Chesterfield armchairs, sparsely distributed around the corporate suite like renegades from an earlier time, offered no clues, only accentuating the inertia of this upper floor.
At the end of the summer of 1996, Empty Club was closed, and 50 St. James's was returned to its former state. As the corporate refurbishment had erased all marks of the Devonshire Club, so nothing of Orozco's transformations remained. But the future life of the building forms an appropriate coda for an artist so preoccupied with circularity and the movement of things. For the use of the building itself is turning full circle. In 1999, 50 St. James's will re-open its doors as a gambling club. Behind its façade of stability, the tables will turn once more.
Image: Installation shot of the oval billiard table in Empty Club by Gabriel Orozco, 1996. Photographer: Stephen White