Shadow Piece performed by Yoko Ono and Barbara Steveni at DIAS (Destruction in Art Symposium) in 1965 at Notting Hill Gate, London. © APG/Tate Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.
Artist Barbara Steveni recaptures the drama of an intervention she, John Latham and Phil Cohen created at a main London station in 1965. Latham and Steveni had bid at a lost property auction as Latham wanted three suitcases to use in his exhibition in Folkestone. Inexperienced auction-goers, the pair discovered that by mistake they had purchased many more cases than they intended. Later, whilst Latham was working in Europe, Steveni devised a use for the spare suitcases and, with Cohen, planned an ‘event’ which was enacted as Latham’s train home drew back into London. At this period such actions must have been immensely shocking and perplexing to the other passengers. Steveni’s account captures her attitude to the event at the time, and how she perceived it decades later.
Barbara Steveni was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in 1998. The interviewer was Melanie Roberts. In 2018 an additional recording began with Steveni, conducted by Victoria Lane.
When John was on the Continent, John was just sort of making different types of assemblage and, stuff, and he was using suitcases, and, he had these three moving suitcases that he’d put a engine in, and they were in an exhibition in Folkestone. But, we went to bid for these suitcases at a, at a auction in Paddington, in Paddington lost property office, and put up our hands at the wrong time, and, got landed with, you know, hundreds of suitcases of all sizes. So we, you know, there was nowhere to put them. Put all the little suitcases inside. Anyway, John was on the Continent, and, and I thought, oh well... He was coming back. I, I suddenly dreamed up this event which was, that we’d take all these suitcases in our van down to the station, arrange with the, the guy on the station platform that these were a whole lot of... We wanted to get rid of the suitcases. So, we bribed this guy with his trolley, which went down the side of the train, to put, to put all the passengers coming off the train, their suitcases on. So we put all our remainder suitcases, you know, I took some saws and nails and hammers, and, Phil took some candles and matches and everything, and we, we then got this station guy, guard, to push our trolley with all our suitcases down until John got off the train. And, then, we told John, ‘we’ll be getting rid of the suitcases. This is our, event' or whatever we called it at the time. And, so John started sawing up these suitcases, and we sawed up the suitcases, and bashed things. And other people who’d got off the train, who’d put their suitcases on this trolley as well, were absolutely appalled [laughs] when we started to chop these up, and, and set fire to them, and... Then finally... And we’d also typed out some little things saying, ‘Disposal Unit’, you know, ‘Paddington Station’ or whatever it was, to make it official. So we’re handing these out to any officials that came to begin with, which stopped them dealing with us, because, if this was official, then this, apparently... You know, it stopped them for a few minutes. And, then, we managed to make a huge construction of the suitcases we’d chopped up and wire between them and everything. And, then I hung them over the end of this train as it backed out of the station. [laughs] And, we got rid of a lot of suitcases and nobody sort of... And then we drove away. And the only person who recorded it was of course a Japanese tourist who came out with a camera and was taking photographs. But we disappeared. But, that, what I mean was, lots of things were done as events and stuff with no thought of, this is an artwork, or this is an event. We’d just do events, like, at that time... I was, I was rather pleased with that event, because, I’d just dreamed it up, and, and it just came out terribly naturally. But... And it was my event, but of course it was never recorded. [laughs]