A walk on the dark side

Richard Cork is horrified by Christoph Büchel's haunting installation in the East End of London

Anyone in search of a dose of New Year pessimism should take a trip to London's East End. By the time I turn off Brick Lane and make my way down Cheshire Street, it is dark. Walking in the shadows past Yummy's Café and Tattoo Piercing, I notice a wall covered by graffiti demanding, in king-size capitals, that we "Feed The People And Burn The Rich!".

I hurry on past a cheap hotel with "Skunk" scrawled on its battered door. Then I realise that my destination must be this same grotty hostel ry, where an upper window advertises the presence of "Chrissy" in flashing pink lights.

Retracing my steps, I ring the bell and go in. Cramped and hideous, the reception area could not be less inviting. For the moment, I feel re assured by the knowledge that this is the beginning of a major installation by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, transforming the old Coppermill premises now run by the international art dealers Hauser & Wirth. A smiling man appears, holding out a printed form he wants me to sign. It does not, however, bolster my confidence: the sheet is a disclaimer declaring that visitors enter the installation "at their own risk". It is "not suitable for children under the age of 12, or for anyone with a fear of confined spaces, and/or with limited mobility".

So, I have been warned. The hotel itself, reached by a narrow front staircase, is appalling. The mean, claustrophobic corridor ahead of me is made almost impassable by the shabby beds and luggage deposited there.

But the living conditions here begin to seem positively luxurious after I pass through a door marked "Private". Suddenly, the hotel terminates. Standing now on a crude metal stairway, I gaze to my right at a cluster of washing lines heavy with sheets and blankets. Ahead of me and below, an immense warehouse area opens out. There are no occupants to be discerned, yet the entire space testifies to their former activ ities. Tall, clapped-out fridges form a glacial forest in one room; another area is piled high with discarded computers, cables, circuit boards, printers and even a bath containing some dark, evil-looking substance.

Worse is to come after I make my way gingerly down the stairs. A monumental cargo container in orange metal turns out to house, on two floors, indescribably grim, crowded and decrepit rooms where families once struggled to survive. The TV sets are still switched on, and a cheap electric fire flares in the grate. Clearly, the hapless people left most of these pitiful possessions behind in their haste to leave. So did the inhabitants of a large lorry nearby, its dim and grimy interior lined with cheap bunk beds, clothing and abandoned meals. This was probably the vehicle that brought some of them over, as illegal immigrants, to England. And once they arrived, it became their secret, smelly home.

At the far end of the lorry, a metal plate in the floor can be lifted up to expose a flight of subterranean steps. Bent double, I descend nervously into the gloom. The floor of the room below is covered in Muslim prayer mats, and a slender passage beyond leads into seemingly impene trable darkness. After attempting to stumble through it, I decide that there is nothing visible, and return. But, to my astonishment, another visitor emerges and tells me about a second room deep inside. Blundering through once again, I eventually discover a chamber where Bibles rest on chairs. The idea that Christian religion played an important role in some of these people's lives seems less likely when I notice the pornographic images stuck higher up on the walls.

Besides, nobody would have much time for prayer of any kind. Next to the lorry is another metal cargo container where heaped garments and sewing machines testify to the existence of a sweatshop. This illicit workforce, doubtless forever fearful of discovery, arrest and repatriation, must have been exploited at every turn.

The most macabre experience of all awaits everybody dauntless enough to enter another container, festooned this time with boxing gloves and gruesomely explicit photos of naked, pouting prostitutes. At the far end, a hole has again been dug in the floor. Descending a rudimentary ladder, we crawl through a tunnel to be confronted, eventually, by a space enclosing an immense block of earth. The discarded shovel lying there suggests that an archaeological dig commenced before the site was evacuated. Only a pair of long tusks juts out from the earth: the rest of the animal is still buried.

Perhaps Büchel wants us to see his entire installation in a Darwinian light. He does, after all, invite visitors to wander through the remains of a thrown-together community that managed, somehow, to subsist in this grubby and abysmal place. By juxtaposing their plight with the prehistoric tusks, he may even be prompting us to reflect on how far so-called civilisation has come since the primordial era.

Cruelty, terror and anguish were rife in the work camp. As such, in one sense, the decision to abandon it seems merciful. But Büchel also obliges us to wonder where these fugitives are now, how long they can hope to survive, and whether it is worth sustaining any existence in such brutally wretched conditions.

Christoph Büchel's "Simply Botiful" continues until 18 March at Hauser & Wirth Coppermill, 92-108 Cheshire Street, London E2, Thursdays to Sundays (12 noon to 7pm). For more information call: 020 7287 2300. www.hauserwirth.com

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics