Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Jun 25, 2017
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    What is That Thing?

    Cathy Bell offers some thoughts on The Spectator's booby prize for public art – the What's That Thing award

    THE WINNER of The Spectator magazine's What's That Thing award for the worst piece of public art to be installed in the UK over the past year has recently been announced as Origin by Solas Creative.

    The piece is a sculpture (made from steel, coloured glass and granite) of a stylised raindrop located on top of a hill overlooking the city of Belfast.

    Whatever your view, the Spectator must have a reason for creating such an inverted accolade. According to Igor Toronyi-Lalic, writing on behalf of the magazine, shaming the purveyors of bad public art is, for now, "the best we can do."

    It is worth noting, however, that the instigator of the award, Stephen Bayley, has claimed that the award is against all public art, asking "has public art ever achieved any level of popular approval or intellectual respect?"

    This seems extreme, the answer to that is – yes, it has. An example of the latter includes Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, a massive site specific sculpture installed in The Foley Plaza in New York in 1981. The artist was eventually, after a legal battle, forced to remove the piece in 1989. Serra refused to locate the sculpture elsewhere due to the fact that it would not be the artwork it was created to be.

    He also argued that the removal of the sculpture had turned it into a 'mobile marketable product,' something it was not intended to be. Perhaps those against the sculpture (mainly employees from the adjacent federal building) did not give the piece intellectual respect, however, the 122 people (including many eminent figures in the art world) who spoke in favour of keeping the sculpture certainly did.

    On the other matter of popular approval, it is fairly common knowledge now that Antony Gormley's Angel of the North near Gateshead has been more than approved, it has virtually become a member of the family in some quarters.

    However, what has become a success story for The Angel of the North has become a disaster movie for public art as a whole. The beloved angel has become the desired blueprint for developers, local authorities, corporations and the like the length and breadth of Britain trying to emulate this success and thereby gain prestige by association in their particular domain.

    The big buzz word is, of course, 'regeneration.' Public art has been viewed as a necessary component of regeneration projects. My local authority recently announced plans to regenerate Winchburgh (the BIG W project), stating that the town "is about to skyrocket and transform."

    They tell us that the new housing development "is making public art part of its new wonderland." Strong stuff, their ambitious plan aims to create one piece of bespoke public art to act (as they put it) as a 'trail blazer.' No doubt they are looking for another Angel or perhaps even another Kelpies, Scotland's most recently lauded gigantic public sculpture.

    Granted the Kelpies is a crucial element in the success of the Helix Park project near Falkirk. The concept is overall okay and there is much to admire about what has been achieved. It is fine for a day out and the Kelpies provide an ideal focal point for people to gather around.

    I have been there, it does work. However, the Kelpies as a good quality work of art is another question. It has become a logo (it actually appears on the Helix Park website as such).

    It has been panned by critics. Jonathon Jones writing in the Guardian in 2014 called it big, bold 'and rotten.' He also alludes to it as "a kitsch exercise in art for the people."

    He has a point, whereas Richard Serra's Tilted Arc had integrity as a challenging piece of art that, as it turned out, was people unfriendly, the Kelpies ticks many of what can be perceived of as people pleasing boxes. That is exactly what planners, developers, corporations and local authorities are really after, not accomplished pieces of art.

    Planners and the like will not put challenging art into public spaces, it is too much of a risk. They must follow the obligations dictated by the 'percent for art' clause, but there the responsibility ends.

    So, when trail blazers are announced, most likely they are talking about blazing a corporate trail rather than making any innovations in artistic practice. The winner of The Spectator's worst public art 2017 award was put together by Solas Creative (or not that creative as it seems to have turned out). They sound like another corporate conglomeration who have spent the money (£100,000) and come up with nothing of any real artistic worth.

    Many Belfast locals have been left unimpressed, being quoted as saying that Origin is "fairly dull and unimaginative."

    This should be a wake-up call to those – possibly dull and unimaginative themselves – who think they can hoodwink 'the people' into believing the hype about trail blazers and the like. People are not as easily pleased or impressed as they think.

    Perhaps Stephen Bayley's assessment is more of a prediction that public art (as a concept) is heading the way he describes: unappealing on all levels, with no intrinsic artistic and intellectual value and very little popular appeal either.

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