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Public art needs meaning

John Wevill

Anodyne and unpopular public works of art are the product of lazy and box-ticking legal distraction. Those who commission should think harder

Katharina Fritsch's Hahn-Cock for The Fourth Plinth.
Katharina Fritsch's Hahn-Cock for The Fourth Plinth. Credit: Martin Pettitt

Historically, public art has been used to memorialise and boast of the accomplishments, wealth or patronage of citizens and rulers. Across London, imposing stone memorials and dramatic rearing bronze horses celebrate our military achievements, fantastical dinosaurs creep through the park in Crystal Palace and imposing Landseer lions guard one of our most-loved public spaces. In comparison, modern public art seems to provide ever increasingly banal viewing and to be generally widely disliked by the public. With every new high-rise, some new much-maligned sculpture or art installation arrives on the streets of London and we seem to be drifting ever further away from the engaging pieces of previous centuries.

Many have attributed the deterioration of public art to the modern culture of political correctness: shapeless metal sculptures on abstract themes are less likely to offend than sculptures of past renowned persons, which risk dredging up issues of race and politics. Equally, museums’ art collections and other sponsors of public art are keen to modernise their reputations and shake off their old-fashioned mantles by encouraging ever more inane and peculiar pieces. The National Gallery's fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has hosted a collection of bemusing works, including a giant blue rooster, thumbs-up and rocking horse.

Lawrence Holofcener's Churchill and Roosevelt on a bench
Lawrence Holofcener's Churchill and Roosevelt on a bench Credit: a_marga

One of the issues of commissioning modern public artwork is certainly the level of responsibility it entails. The cost of maintaining and cleaning art and ensuring that it remains safe and stable for the public encourages artists and art-commissioners alike to use modern ‘easy-clean’ materials such as steel and concrete, and to steer away from planting and fountains, which require year-round maintenance and water supply.  

Requests for proposals from local authorities will emphasise the need for the artworks to be vandal-resistant, weather-resistant, compliant with health and safety codes and regulations – free from sharp edges, for example. It is not difficult to see how the creative energy of an artist can quickly be sapped by the need to tick so many boxes. The over-prescriptive requirements of those commissioning public art inevitably encourage safe choices and a trend towards the banal.

Public liability is another reason why so much public art fails to impress. Ai Weiwei's 2010 installation Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern was created with the intention of giving the public the experience of walking over 100 million handcrafted life-sized porcelain sunflower seed husks - however, soon after opening, the public was cordoned off more than a metre away from the artwork amid health concerns about the inhalation of dust caused by the ‘interaction of visitors with the sculpture’. Other examples of Tate Modern's public artwork causing health and safety scares include the 2006 slides by Carsten Holler and Doris Calcedo's 2007 Shibboleth, a giant crack in the Turbine Hall floor with a depth of up to three feet and several related injuries.  

Sarah Lucas' bronze marrow at Embassy Gardens, London.
Sarah Lucas' bronze marrow at Embassy Gardens, London. Credit: Microgrove

Elsewhere, public artwork has slowly been amalgamated into anti-terror infrastructure: ugly concrete blocks, barriers and comically large flower pots are already peppering the streets of the world's busiest cities to protect pedestrians from hostile vehicle access.

London planners have taken measures to creatively transform these barriers: at the Emirates Stadium in London, large concrete letters spell ‘ARSENAL’ along the pavement; at More London by Tower Bridge, circular concrete seating is raised and lowered in the style of a Greek amphitheatre; and by London Bridge the artist Jennifer Abessira created bollard art (bollart) by covering metal bollards with positive photographs and collages to celebrate the area's culture and heritage.

For London developers, creating iconic landmark ‘destination’ developments is important, and public art can be the additional glamour required as a marketing gimmick, particularly if the artist is well-known. But tiny percentages of all development budgets are spent on place-making features, abstract metal sculptures are often installed as cheap get-outs for developers.  

A developer may want the prestige of something ‘arty’ and place-making without any of the labour or cost of maintenance associated with fountains, flowers or park swings, or they may be motivated by the need to satisfy a Section 106 planning requirement for some public art to get their scheme approved. Either way, if neither the developer nor the local authority are truly invested in the detail of the art, the end result can be expected to be mediocre.  

One may question the merit, for example, of Rebecca Warren's ‘William’, a phallic bronze cast between the office buildings of Central St Giles, or Sarah Lucas' bronze marrow in Embassy Gardens, Vauxhall. These metal sculptures arguably serve as a pointless abstract focus in edgy, vibrant areas that simply had no need for one; Aldeburgh's stainless steel Scallop squats on the pebble beach, inevitably detracting from the natural drama and beauty of the Suffolk coastline.

Richard Wilson's A Slice of Reality
Richard Wilson's A Slice of Reality Credit: Chez l’abeille 2017

This is not to say that there haven't been engaging and thoughtful expressions of modern public art around London and elsewhere - Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt chatting on a bench; the ceramic poppies surrounding the Tower of London; Richard Wilson's 2000 ‘Slice of Reality’ by Greenwich Peninsula, which artfully slices through a half-moored former sand dredger to show a cross-section of its interior. It is informative, historical and creative.

Raoul Wallenberg stands in Great Cumberland Place, the incredible story of his heroism told through a bronze wall of the Swedish protection passes which he used to save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews. The beloved Superlambanana, which somehow sums up the warmth and humour of Liverpudlian culture in a single image, shows that a public piece doesn't have to be instantly popular to be ultimately successful. If there is depth and beauty then emotional engagement will follow. These installations all give the public the chance to interact with the art, a space to think and be inspired. They should also inspire all developers and local authorities to see the benefit in seeking the very best when commissioning public artwork.

As a society we need to reassess how necessary we consider new public art to be – forcing urban estate owners and developers to commission and pay for art for art's sake is an expensive endeavour that seems to lead to works without merit. This money could arguably be better spent sponsoring the curation of (and access to) art in museums and public collections, or even contributing towards the restoration, revival or inventive reimagining of neglected listed or historic buildings. We should be challenging councils that encourage developers to funnel funds towards phoned-in public sculpture rather than towards supporting local services, the maintenance of green spaces and local art initiatives that engage and inspire the public. 

  • Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds (2010) for Tate Modern
    Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds (2010) for Tate Modern Credit: Tate Photography
  • Rebecca Warren's William at Central St Giles, London
    Rebecca Warren's William at Central St Giles, London Credit: Ham II

And where public art is commissioned, it should be held to some artistic or meaningful standards.  Beauty, honesty, love and wit should be basic requirements.  

At 21 Davies Street in London, Ian Hamilton Finlay etched the words of French revolutionary Louis de Saint-Just into the terracotta façade: ‘Too many laws, too few examples’ and ‘Les Mots Juste et Injuste Sont Entendus Par Toutes Les Consciences’. There was no particular reason why the developer needed to do this – the etched slogans did not enhance the value of the building. But with them, the walls are no longer just a barrier to keep us out; we are drawn in. There is a knowing playfulness – the words are etched into the walls to make us think and to make us feel.

We should demand that any public art offers such interaction or social benefit, from the poorest areas to the wealthiest – from Favela Painting in Rio de Janeiro as a means to transform and uplift communities to the lucky bronze balls of Wall Street's charging bull statue. Interestingly, both began as guerrilla art.

John Wevill is a partner and head of construction at law firm Boodle Hatfield 



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