Artist's Statement: Andrew Cross on the art of Trainspotting at the National Railway Museum

| 10 October 2014

Artist’s Statement: Andrew Cross on a new contemporary interpretation of the theme of trainspotting at the National Railway Museum

Click on the picture to launch a gallery from the exhibition

“There is something wonderfully absurd about trainspotting, and you could possibly say the same about the desire to make art.

In many respects this is the culmination of something that started on a Saturday in November, 1971.

This is a great opportunity for me to delve into some of the more obscure corners of what started as a hobby and became not so much a way of life but rather a way of seeing the world.

York Station (August 3 1981)© Trevor Ermel
In the general scheme of life it is not necessarily the most obvious thing to do.  The question, therefore, of why you do it becomes all the more interesting.

I particularly want to bring something to the exhibition which is about more than just  locomotives and numbers - an experience which is more universal, to do with exploration and the contemplation of time and place.

I think we are all trainspotters of a kind. Most people are afraid to recognise it.

If you listen to the way people talk about the Glastonbury line-up or, indeed, visiting art exhibitions, it's generally the ticking off of a list.

Yet for some reason trainspotting has remained a metaphor for something that is not only derided but actually unsettles the comfortable majority.

David Rice in front of Earl of Eldon at Cardiff (1964)© David Rice
In the tradition of English radicalism I see trainspotting as one of the last remaining stances against the normal you can take.

At a posh dinner party you can confess to all manner of things and no-one will turn a hair, but if you were to say you like trains you can see a palpable disquiet among your fellow guests. They may not understand your motivation.

Trainspotters demonstrate the ability of individuals to act freely in pursuit of their interests simply because they are not influenced by fashion or social expectation. I think many people are envious of that.

I am one of those 70s schoolboys who used to loiter at the end of station platforms and explore the back streets of Britain's industrial towns, now grown-up – sort of.

Wherever I am in the world, even looking out of aeroplane windows, the way I observe the world is influenced by those early years trainspotting.

There are almost too many memories to mention. Many of them are to do with atmosphere - station waiting rooms on dank winter days, the grime around engine sheds, industrial decline, egg sandwiches, the smell of diesel.

Tan-y-Bwlch, Festiniog Railway (June 1968)© David Percival
Freezing to death at Water Orton near Birmingham in January 1972; seeing the Boots factory on my first ever visit to Nottingham, also during 1972; passing through Newcastle very early one May morning in 1974 on an overnight excursion from Oxford to Aberdeen when Newcastle had just lost to Liverpool in the FA Cup final.

There was the 1055 Western Advocate at the head of our train back to Oxford at Reading station on that November Saturday in 1971. The feeling of excitement.

More recently, I was alone in the Mojave desert watching a train heading towards me from a good 15 miles away.

It’s difficult to say what inspired me to become an artist. It was possibly to do with LP cover design and the work of someone like Roger Dean.

Despite the usual history offered, the 1970s was actually a very creative time when things felt possible and the motivation was the exploration of ideas and not celebrity.

I've recently found some very old photographs I took in my trainspotting days which I had totally forgotten about.

Trainspotters with Flying Scotsman (March 23 1968)© David Percival
I am interested in how images like these, and those by others - including items from the amazing National Railway Museum archives - can become triggers for memory and a way of mapping places and moments from the past.

It’s also about the way that trainspotting is an inexact science, often full of idiosyncrasy and missed opportunities – personally, I have plenty of memories but very little in accurate records. In some respects, most of us weren't that good at it, but that wasn't the point.

I am also drawing upon my experiences of train watching in the USA from over the past 20 years.

This is all about how train watching becomes an exploration of landscape and time.

Since art school I have always been drawn to abstract painting, particularly from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I don't know why.

Peter Kinley, a British painter from that period who was my tutor, became a great influence.

I like art that is quiet and intelligent. The American photographers, William Christenberry and James Welling, have been influential, not least because Welling introduced me to watching trains in America.

Otherwise, it’s Neil Young. Great music to watch trains by and he confounds his critics and fans in equal measure."

  • Trainspotting is at the National Railway Museum until March 1 2015. Visit nrm.org.uk/trainspotting. Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

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