A Channel Tunnel - and fish might fly

A shoal of huge sand eels swims alongside the Euro-commuters boarding a t Waterloo
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The Independent Culture
Try to suspend your disbelief. It's easy. Just accept that fish can fly 20ft in the air and that a train can travel beneath the sea. It may be the stuff of Jules Verne, but the train, the Eurostar, we all now know exists, and from 16 January the fish will be seen by passengers as they board it at Waterloo. The shoal of huge sand eels swimming alongside the Euro-commuters on their outward journey and above their heads as they return, is the creation of the French artist Jean-Luc Vilmouth.

Channel Fish, 10 exquisite, articulated mechanical creatures suspended from the roof of the new Waterloo International terminal, are the latest works of an artist who has spent the last 15 years attempting to disturb our everyday routine with unexpected interventions, designed to re-integrate man and nature.

In past projects, Vilmouth has installed a spiral staircase around a palm tree, designed wallpaper reproducing a photograph of a landscape and diverted a Grenoble commuter tram through the middle of an exhibition. Most notably perhaps, in his work AnimalPublic, the artist presented gallery visitors with animal masks, inviting them to participate with the inscription: "Choose your animal and transform yourself". Such transformations are central to Vilmouth's work, in which the mundane consistently becomes magical, and man returns to his natural state. He has frequently described himself as an ethnologist rather than an artist.

In this new work, the result of a competition masterminded by the Public Art Commissions Agency, Vilmouth's fish mimic the urgency of cross-Channel travellers, speeding up as a train pulls out.

While they might appear almost to mock the conditioned behaviour of their human counterparts, at the same time these fish offer consolation. "The traveller," Vilmouth says, "should be able to feel a kind of similarity between the fish, the train, the tunnel and the station." It is in this similarity that the essential function of the Channel Fish lies.

It would be facile to dismiss Vilmouth's creation merely as a decorative finish to the new terminal - another monument to man's triumph over nature. To do so would be to misconstrue utterly the philosophy of an artist whose work is intended to operate onquite another level. Vilmouth is aware that the key to making successful public art is to engage the imagination and avoid pomposity. Vilmouth's fish relate directly to the history and geography of the tunnel. Certainly they act as an aide memoire of the reality of the environment which man has had the audacity to challenge. But Vilmouth's interpretation of its historic significance is no dry tableau presenting "man's achievement". It is rather an evocation of the timeless, abid ing vastness of the natural world which surrounds the train's underwater cocoon.

This is public art work as public therapy. The gentle rocking motion of the fish suggests not the 140mph dash of the Eurostar, but a natural pace which should reassure the nervous passenger. What have they got to worry about? Fish can fly.

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