Art & Design

The Oubliette Arthouse


Standing on the roof of the former Mexican embassy in Mayfair, looking over the rooftops of central London, like it’s some set from Mary Poppins; I’m thinking about perspective. People never seem to look up. It’s an odd thing really, but you miss a lot of what there is around you if you don’t see the whole picture.

Since August the former Mexican embassy, a place forgotten and empty for half a decade, has been hosting a group of innovative artists. It reminds me of Le Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre where Picasso, Modigliani and other impoverished artists lived and worked in a commune. The meeting place for a lot of prominent figures of artistic avant-garde, including Matisse and Reverdy, le Bateau-Lavoir has gained its place in history as the landmark of the bohème. In an attempt to define art, Ernst Gombrich gives the answer in the very first sentence of his ‘The Story of Art’: There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.


The Oubliette, the forgotten place, is not an ordinary squat. It is an Arts organization. ‘We are not squatters; squatters occupy to live, we take empty places to raise awareness of what we do. We provide space, platforms and community, necessary for emerging artists. We exchange ideas, challenge emotion, extend further knowledge, support the innovative and the avant-garde performers and curators to exhibit and sell.’ Oubliette Project Leader, Dan Simon, explains.

Philip Firsov helps me get off the roof, introduces me to his sculpture, Artemis, and shows me the colours he creates on his own to make ends meet. Stik promises he will inform me about his forthcoming exhibition in east London – non-stop sketching, not even raising an eye to me -. Hupert asks what I think of her installation, a disembodied armchair, false black hair and transparent tubes filled with black water paint coming out of an ancient Greek – like gotch. (‘…deconstruction?’)

Two blokes are playing Edward Albee’s ‘The Zoo Story’ in the communal room, another is rehearsing his poem. A Lilliputian girl is playing the violin down in the entrance whilst a guy covered in paint, offers everyone tiny chops of lettuce (is that their dinner?). A French gallerist hangs around in his late 70s bellbottoms giving out his business cards. ‘We don’t need galleries’ Philip whispers. ‘London is expensive; artists can’t afford to make art. We offer cost-free central London space  for people who really need to create, perform, exhibit and emerge; we help artists in a variety of fields, anyone that needs it, anything related to the art; we are very open minded. We help emerging artists to contribute to the arts economy and we give them freedom to renovate and to develop’ Dan adds.

The Oubliette will have to move this week (the former Mexican embassy belongs to the Queen and her Majesty is not fond of squatters) and will reunite in a few weeks to find a new place. Their vision is to find a dynamic, more permanent base, which will host facilities such as a darkroom, a print room and dedicated working areas for sculpture, music recording and performance rehearsals. ‘But firstly we must have the Arthouse recognized’, Dan insists.

Art is always going to be an arena in which people look for new things: Oubliette is a breeding ground for creativity, and it garners and generates ideas. It is like sward: loves the crowd, sprouts in cross roads, and grows to be stepped on. Just remember to look up every now and again, or you’ re sure to miss something that might change your perspective.