Icons or Eye Candy?

The following article first featured in July / August 2003’s issue 2 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article discussed the inaugural publication Public Art Northwest and the cultural and economic value aka ‘angel effect’ of iconic public art gateways.

Public Art Northwest: Icons or Eye Candy?

A brand new publication Public Art Northwest, produced by Arts Council England: North West in conjunction with strategic stakeholders, accompanies this issue of Prospect NW. Produced with RIBA NW members in mind, it serves as a reference to the broad church of public art currently to be seen within the Northwest of England. The booklet – and its complimentary website www.publicartnorthwest.org.uk – has been set up to assist commissioning bodies, architects and artists in examining more closely the benefits and diversity of public art. Architects and other built environment professionals are encouraged to seek out some of the most successful projects and practices in the region (both completed and planned), and to aspire to assist in developing the art form further through increased collaboration with artists – and hopefully, using CPD, through investigation of other national and international exemplars

The booklet, along with the previous article ‘But is it Art’ featured in the last edition, reiterates the point that the public art form can vary tremendously: It can range from large-scale public realm works, to temporary installations or become increasingly integrated as ‘art-architecture’. In detail it can embrace full-on community, environmental or historical considerations, with humorous or technological intervention – but yet can still include work that is traditional, craft-based or sculptural. This mind-set is broad and is a long way from commonly held perceptions that public art is mainly art ‘on-a plinth’ or ‘on-the-wall’ – in short something shallowly referred to as ‘eye candy’ or, even ultimately, the ‘turd-in-the piazza’. Such short-sightedness, along with an overriding desire for many commissioning bodies to want to emulate Newcastle & Gateshead – but with a “bigger, better and more expensive” icon than Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, constitutes two of the most commonly held misconceptions involving the art form today.

There is a time and a place for such iconic works of course. The Gateshead Partnership’s inspirational commissioning of ‘Angel’ wasn’t a freak one-off but followed a huge legacy of community arts-in-regeneration work that literally paved the way with 30-odd works of public art over a number of years. Such works pre-dated ‘Angel’ and all contributed to relaunching the image and pride of a region, once blighted by its ship building industry in decline and urban decay. When it finally came, ‘Angel’ was the ultimate catalyst that merely completed the initial phase of an on-going regenerative process. The marketing value of such powerful regional brands is unquestionable however – providing high levels of artistic quality and community ‘ownership’ is achieved.

Historically, images of any newly proposed major works were always illustrated in the media along side scaled images of popular icons such as Nelson’s Column or Blackpool Tower. Increasingly now comes an added datum of ‘Angel’ – along with its viewing statistics: (one person seeing it every second, 90,000 every day or 33 million every year etc), it’s height (20m), and increasingly capital cost (approx. £1m) becoming the ultimate qualitative and comparative benchmark. Recent national additions to the genre in the form of that ‘honorary’ public art form – innovative and aesthetic engineering – have been Marks Barfield’s London Eye and Wilkinson Eyre’s Winking Eye Bridge in Newcastle, and all contrive to set a heightened standard for aspiration.

It is interesting to note that illustrated within the opening credits to all BBC Match of the Day’s England international programmes, is a demonstration that the powerful footballing identities of London, the Northeast and the Northwest, are respectively symbolised by the ‘Eye’ and ‘Angel’ along with finally (and presumably because no contemporary regional successor exists) the historic splendour of Blackpool Tower! So where then are the new iconic pieces planned for England’s Northwest and fit for its 21st Century? The regions self-pride and innovation is undoubtedly increasing in direct proportion to its profile raising in innovative architecture, regeneration, culture and so forth – but there appears to be no corresponding examples of public art coming through that are truly of an international stature to compliment this impressive regional renaissance.

The answer of course, is that it is about to come. A potential legacy of such work is carefully being prepared across the region whilst the ambitions and expertise of the various commissioners and clients alike is also growing steadily. There currently exists three such schemes at an advanced construction stages and which are at the City of Manchester Stadium (B of the Bang by Thomas Heatherwick Studio for New East Manchester); in Speke Garston (Mersey Wave by Art2Architecture for Liverpool Land Development Company) and in Liverpool (Penelope by Jorge Pardo for Liverpool Ropewalks Partnership). All of these are featured in both the Public Art Northwest book and website.

Following the Northwest Development Agency’s (NWDA) recent decision to forge a brave new approach to public art funding, many of the other regeneration partnerships within the Northwest have also been encouraged to build upon their long legacy of earlier community-focused (but largely limited budget) works. Consequently these partnerships now feel they are beginning to have the right tools at hand and are at a crucial point in time – one where they can begin to realise their ultimate statement of intent – the almost ostentatious luxury of achieving their first major public art commissions. With the rapidly looming potential of Liverpool as 2008 Capital of Culture, this initiative could not have come at a more opportune moment for the region.

The purpose for the very best of public art is to push the artistic boundaries and to investigate new ways of thinking about both art, and through it, our relationship to the world. What is often forgotten is that when Angel of the North was first proposed it was not afraid to court criticism and provoke huge outcries – negative sentiments that subsequently subsided as the project gained acknowledgement and mainstream support. A similar visionary and uncompromising approach to the development of iconic public art for the Northwest is anticipated – it is one that is hoped will grow continually and lead by example to eventually place the region on a world map to showcase best practice.

Categories: Writing

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