Do big ears turn suits into artists?

Click to follow
IT'S 7.45am, and the relentless tide of suits washes north across London Bridge towards the City. Grey suits, navy suits, black suits: eyes fixed purposefully ahead as they stride the familiar path to work.

Breezy young women with clipboards try to button-hole them with offers of life assurance, timeshares and other property investment opportunities, but the suits slip past with seasoned defensiveness.

On the bridge, more young women wave more paper; but here, miraculously, a handful of bridge-goers stop and receive the out-stretched offering. Putting down their briefcases, they smooth down their hair, and with all due seriousness place the paperware on their heads. It's purple, pink and yellow, and not very dignified - a pair of jaunty ears with the huge slogan, "Art iz Us."

The ears have been provided by Anthony Samuelson, a 68-year-old eccentric who has been staking out the bridge every weekday morning since the end of March to pave the way for today's art happening, a comment on the Turner Prize.

In the countdown to the big event, he has spent the weeks bombarding "bridgers" with a succession of explanatory texts, culminating on Wednesday with a dress-rehearsal, in which he distributed printed headbands for home practice. "I was wearing my `accustomiser' at home last night," explains Mark, a stockbroker freshly delivered off the 8.05. "It was to get you used to the idea so you didn't feel a complete prat today." Has it worked? Yes. Today he is wearing his ears with pride, though somewhat disappointed at "the typically non-committal British attitude" of many of his peers rushing bare-headedly past.

"You can get killed if you stop to tie your shoelace here," warns Joan from NatWest, whose colleague, Peter, has paused to take her eared-up photo.

Why is she participating? "Anything to drop the notion that we're all drones going off to work. I cycle half the week because I can't bear being on the train treated like cattle or a bunch of refugees," she explains. "When I first got a leaflet I thought it was designed to ridicule us. I'm sensitive to being treated like a number not a person. I thought it might be donkey ears he wanted us to wear. I thought it might be just another emblem of conformity. He gradually convinced me."

Initially carrying the whiff of pretentious art hoax, Samuelson's "happening" has touched the hearts of 200 ear-wearing people: equal numbers of men and women, any age group, many in couples. "You did it!" a grey-suit slaps Samuelson warmly on the back.

"Thank you! Thank you!" beams Samuelson, who as a young barrister in the early Fifties made this self-same trip to work. Participation has far exceeded his expectation. "I'm cutting my teeth on the easy stuff," he says. "Persuading the Apprentice Boys' march in Derry may be harder."

Everyone present on the bridge between 7.45 and 9.15am, ear-wearing or not, has been declared an artist by Samuelson. To underline the fact, he has printed up Turner Prize nomination forms for "bridgers" to fill out, entitling them all to a share in the possible pounds 20,000 winnings.

His stance is not another conceptual stab in the "Is it art?" debate, nor is it a swipe at the art world's ruling elite. "The Turner Prize is an outstanding prize for contemporary art and the people who win it are at the tops of their careers," Samuelson says. His argument with the Turner, you see, is a teeny point in the rules - to qualify you have to be under 50.

Few of the bridgers admit any interest in art or the Turner Prize. They are, however, up for a giggle and a chance to support the man who has dedicated so much time to wooing their support. The event is entirely self-funded by Samuelson, and his stunt has hurt no one except the exasperated film crew who flew over from Los Angeles this morning to catch pictures of traditionally miserable City gents trudging to work.

In fact, there's something in it for everyone. "Are these hats?" asks a woman in her fifties. "I've refused the damn leaflets for weeks, and I was just about to walk past," she says. "But I'm going to a party in France tomorrow and you've got to wear a hat. Until now I didn't have one."