Clyde Tunnel, Glasgow

Mark Smith


THE first robot approaches us from the roof, sliding along on a fine wire and appearing to reach out with a metal skeletal arm. It’s pretty dark and misty down here so I’m not entirely sure what it’s doing, but it appears to be taking a selfie. Of course it is. Robots are becoming increasingly human so even they can be narcissistic.

The robot selfie-taker is the first one we encounter at Portal, an arts installation in one of the pedestrian walkways that runs alongside and under the Clyde Tunnel. There are other robots along the way, including one that looks rather like a maggot looking for something to chomp on and another that’s inspired by Ian Holm’s disembodied head from the original Alien movie. It lies on its side, the synthetic skin twitching. It’s better than CGI.

The man who designed Alien, the artist HR Giger, is clearly one of the main inspirations for this work, staged for Cryptic by the designer Robbie Thomson and with music by Alex Menzies. Giger was known for his images of dystopian architecture and there was a time when the Clyde Tunnel, and particularly its walkway, was the definition of dystopian architecture. Nowadays, it’s clean and safe and is controlled by automatic doors at either end, but it wasn’t always that way. There was always the feeling in the old days that you might go in one end and not come out the other. That’s why the tunnel is the ideal location for this exhibition.

Does it work entirely? Well, perhaps the workings of the effects and lights could have been better concealed to suggest something that was more at one with the tunnel, but the walkway is a compelling place and the installations play with its disturbing and hypnotic qualities, particularly when the lights create the illusion of being underwater.

The work is also a kind of tribute to a piece of architecture that deserves to be loved more than it is. This is a 750-metre long tunnel hewn from the rock in dangerous conditions and Portal makes the most of its disturbing qualities, but I also love the fact that you can walk under the river and you can stand just two feet under the cars and listen to them rumble from north to south and south to north. This is an extraordinary place and Portal has made us look at it again and realise it.