The public has a rather warped view of the shrouded world behind embassy doors, as cultural attachés recently discovered at this year’s Frieze Art Fair.
One of the most intriguing exhibitions at the multinational contemporary art show was The Embassy, produced by avant garde gallery 20 Hoxton Square Projects. Subtitled ‘How not to run a country,’ the exhibit parodied outmoded cultural diplomacy by way of a fictional embassy of a very badly managed tin-pot dictatorship.
Installations included an over-pompous rendition of a national anthem, ornate flags and caricatures of regal portraits. It even included three ballot boxes from the US elections in 2000, once at the centre of the ‘hanging chad’ debacle.
From mission to swingers’ club
In a case of art imitating life, the exhibit was housed at 33 Portland Place, the site of the former High Commission for Sierra Leone, which has a rather dubious history of its own. At the height of the civil war, the mission was in such a state of disrepair it was sold to a playboy property developer and party promoter, ‘Lord’ Edward Davenport, for £50,000 – a snip for a Georgian townhouse in exclusive Marylebone.
The Sierra Leonean diplomats, meanwhile, were forced to shack up in cramped temporary quarters.
Since then the venue has hosted celebrity bashes, it’s been the set for the underwear company Agent Provocateur – and is a venue for up-market swingers’ parties.
Squatters and silencers
But the Sierra Leone High Commission is not the only mission with dark secrets. When the Iraqi Embassy was reopened after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, staff found a safe containing a haul of machine guns, pistols, cameras, bugging devices and – rather unnervingly – electric prods and silencers.
Other abandoned embassies seem to be the favoured haunts of squatters – including the former Mexican and Sudanese embassies and, curiously, the ‘Embassy of Kampuchea’, which in the 1970s was occupied by a group called ‘the Guild of Transcultural Studies’.
Reinventing a Stalinist bunker
The exhibition posed some uncomfortable questions. What image does an embassy project about its country? Is the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – located miles out in West London – an act of self-imposed isolation? What emotion does the fortress-like US Embassy evoke in the host nation? And on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, how do the Czechs and Slovaks re-invent an embassy which Vaclav Havel once jokingly called a “Stalinist bunker”?
Are the grand embassy facades in Belgravia, Mayfair and Kensington Palace Gardens just that – facades?
The public wants to know what goes on behind the high-security doors, but what is the balance between security, openness and cost? All thought-provoking ideas for London’s cultural attachés who have to figure out new ways to engage with the public.
‘Stalinist bunker’ – how do you reinvent the Czech and Slovak Embassies?