Model railways usually depict bucolic scenes of small-town nostalgia, but artist James Cauty has taken these tiny figurines in a completely different direction: Thousands of model railway workers have been turned into policemen, surveying an area of total post-apocalyptic destruction.
“It’s about what happens when the police take over completely, a totalitarian state,” Cauty told the BBC when the exhibit went up at his gallery, L-13, last fall. “They’ve arrested everybody, and now they’re standing around not really knowing what to do; they’re bored, really. They’ve done it, they’ve achieved a police state.”
The project was inspired, he says, by noticing how people act when they’re standing around in groups. It also builds on a 2011 project called A Riot in a Jam Jar, in which Cauty built tiny dioramas of protest scenes and riots.
Cauty has a longstanding interest in cops. Before he worked as an artist, in the late 1980s, he performed as part of the band KLF, and on one hit single, listed a police car that he owns–an 1968 Ford Galaxie–as a “co-writer” for the song. He used the car as his everyday vehicle.
In this project, called “The Aftermath Dislocation Principle,” Cauty spent around nine months digging into his police obsession. The artwork depicts a square mile in Bedfordshire, a county in eastern England, after an imagined riot. It’s all rendered in painstaking detail at 1:87 scale. “It’s all about consistency in detail,” Cauty says. “There is no point spending 12 hours working on a very detailed Chicken Cottage fast food joint if the building next door is just a cardboard box.”
He worked with three assistants, one of whom spent four months doing nothing but preparing the 3,000 policeman; since they were originally railway figures, she had to cut off their tiny heads and replace them with policemen. She also painted reflective coats on each figure, using a paintbrush the size of a needle.
When everything in the landscape was perfectly built, Cauty started destroying it. In the final version, cars are overturned, stores are looted, and concrete roads are cracking apart. The ground looks charred. A delivery truck has crashed through a McDonald’s, leaving one of the arches broken on the ground. Lights flash on miniature ambulances.
Now that the installation is over, Cauty is working on another police-inspired piece of art: Former U.K. riot shields turned into smiley faces.