Lost and Found in Sunderland - a major new art commission

Sunderland station
11 August 2010

Nexus, which owns and manages the Metro system, has spent £7 million modernising the platform spaces at Sunderland station - with more than a little artistic inspiration to help.

Not one, but three, separate artists were appointed to assist architects and engineers in rethinking the 140-metre underground space.

The first major work completed is Found, a commission by North East photographer Julian Germain, who works in both the commercial and artistic worlds.

That means high-profile campaigns for big brands Adidas, Flora and Smirnoff, alongside a fascinating body of work casting the mundane – school photographs, football memorabilia, items for sale on eBay and the like – in a whole new light.

No surprise then that he should warm to the idea of rummaging Metro’s lost property department at Nexus’ invitation.

Found is the result – a sequence of 41 images giving unlikely immortality to objects liberated from those dusty shelves. Each one is the start of an imagined tale, a brief flash of light into the life of a stranger.

There’s a lost geography exercise book, colourful handbag and of course phones and jewellery. But who forgets their hair extensions? A bright blue ukulele? Or an alloy wheel, for heaven’s sake?

Julian Germain soon realized the project was not so much about the lost property as its one-time owners.

“This was fascinating, sometimes sad or touching and at others very amusing. What really came out of it was a realization the project is only partly about lost items.

“It’s much more about the everyday lives of different kinds of people who use Metro and the world they live in. The lost objects open a door to thinking about that.

“In some ways the brief from Nexus proved quite narrow. I was aware of other works where artists had taken such objects into the studio I decided to return them to the network where they were 'found'. As such I had to come to terms with the obvious conceit that I would be placing and arranging these objects.

“I had to be very careful with the setting for each photograph and remind myself this is not for a book or an exhibition but a very long platform wall. I now realise very few of the audience will see the whole series in one viewing but will (possibly subconsciously) get to know these pictures slowly over a long period of time.”

The 41 images that make up Found will hang permanently along a 140-metre Victorian brick wall facing one of Sunderland’s two endless platforms, in a space where you might normally expect to see advertising posters.

Julian adds: “On a technical level there were mountains to climb. The panels are not exhibition prints, but materials that have to last 20 years and withstand trains thundering past all day.

“Also, there is lost property it’s simply not possible to show if it reveals someone’s identity – on a library card or the name on the front of a letter. There are other issues about ‘possible’ interpretations of images (in particular children’s clothes or toys) which have come to the fore during the editorial process. The risk assessors appear to be wary of potential connotations that I, for the life of me cannot see.

“From my perspective, the work needed to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining and it is the referencing of everyday lives that has the potential to make it so.”

The project has been complex for Nexus, which despite coming up with the cash for Sunderland’s facelift, does not own or manage the station. It has had to make sure Network Rail and train operator Northern were happy as designs took shape.

While the three commissions Nexus is working on make up a small percentage of the overall cost of the building project, they are be crucial to its success.

Huw Lewis, who looks after Nexus’ Art on Transport programme, adds: “We have art at more than 30 Metro stations, but nowhere is it more fundamental to the overall atmosphere of a place.

“You could not get by with conventional design at Sunderland. Instead of being hampered by this long, low-ceilinged space, we think it has inspired something unique.”

Found will be joined by two other artworks when the refurbishment is completed in autumn 2010.

Morag Morrison, who devised the distinctive colour palate that sets Sunderland’s Metro line apart has returned to ‘finish the job’ at the city station, introducing coloured glass panels to clad the buildings and staircase along the platforms.

And on the station’s west wall Jason Bruges Studio, a London studio with commissions for the 2012 Olympics and Toronto’s new York University station, and with a George Michael European tour on the CV, have devised a constant animation in LED.

Pixelated human figures will slowly build up in random groups, then disappear with each passing train. They will stand, sit, walk just as the passengers viewing them do – and perhaps if you look hard enough you’ll spot one who’s lost their mobile phone.