I have to admit, I’ve never been one for public art displays. They often strike me as slightly gaudy, too quick to make a statement and cause controversy. With my cynic’s hat on, I’d say they’re often more about securing publicity for the artist than providing the public with something meaningful. Not so for Charles Pétillon’s Heartbeat installation in Covent Garden, which I visited this weekend. Featuring thousands of white balloons, subtly lit from within in a changing pattern, Pétillon has managed to transform the space – introducing a sense of serenity to one of the country’s most notoriously tourist-heavy spots.
Being no stranger to Covent Garden Market (it stands just around the corner from my university, and I am frequently called upon to be tour guide for visiting friends), I have to disagree with Pétillon’s underlying philosophy for the installation, in his words: “I want to change people’s point of view, their perspective of a place they see every day and never really look at… most of the people who come here, they forget that this place has a history that stretches so far back. Most of my photos talk about this idea of forgotten memory, so again with Covent Garden I wanted to connect people with this past of this place and remind them of all the history that makes this such an iconic place.”
I would argue that Covent Garden is actually one of the tourist centres in London which places its history front and centre. From the vaulted ceiling, original brickwork, cobbled streets and gilded placards bearing the old trading rules of the market, filling the space with his exhibition seems more of a distraction from the clear evidence of the market’s past than a thought-provoking contrast. This is most clearly evident in the contrast between the retailers who inhabit the central market versus the surrounding streets. Even with the most modern approaches, the market still trades on its reputation as a bastion of heritage brands. The concept of provoking us to look again is far better in Pétillon’s other photographic work, where the balloons are a true oddity, and prompt reflection. Covent Garden’s flocking visitors expect this sort of spectacle.
But nevertheless, it is a display which holds a sort of ethereal beauty. It takes something quite special to cause people to stop, and marvel in the atmosphere of a space amidst the noise of street performers, cafés and fellow shoppers, and this is one piece of art I will be happy to see filling my Instagram feed until it closes on September 27th.