Raising the Standard

The following article first featured in April 2005’s issue 19 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 Tracey Emin’s deliberately feminin approach to public art in general, via reference to her newly public artwork for Liverpool, and commissioned by the BBC, called ‘Roman Standard’.

Upon RIBA NW closure of the Prospect NW franchise, and with the subsequent permission of the Carnyx publishing group, the same article now features permanently in the Scottish urban design blog called Urban Realm.

An interesting news postscript to this 2005 article that it’s prophesy of a potential theft of the minute sculpture proved accurate (in fact by 2008 the £60,0000 sculpture has already been stolen twice). The good news is that it has also been reinstated after each of those thefts. See Liverpool Echo report 15th September 2008.

Scroll down to read the article in full….

Raising the Standard:  A little bird tells us of hope, faith and spirituality in public art

The artist as celebrity is a major business today. In the field of public art, it can sometimes appear to eclipse the actual importance and quality of artwork produced, particularly where regeneration and marketing bodies gloat over the relative size and cost of their commissions; as well as the column inches and media slots attained. Thus, public art is often used as a means to an end; a vehicle to help achieve a nirvana of regenerative attainment, through the brokering in of cultural capital.

An Arts Council event, created in conjunction with BBC, addressed this point in February, by debating the thorny issue of “can you buy culture?” Based in part at Liverpool’s FACT 1 Centre, Art05 2 was the latest in a series of annual showcases to celebrate the best North West arts and cultural practitioners, whilst also this year, querying the role of the arts as ‘saviour of our cities.’ Given the location, the tone of the event was unsurprisingly influenced by the approaching Capital of Culture in 2008.3 Chaired by Alan Yentob, Director of Creativity at BBC, an eminent arts panel, that included the sculptor Richard Wentworth, 4 debated with an invited specialist audience. In one notable exchange, Wentworth worried about the pitfalls of only creating “a shinier world for shiny people”, through the gentrification of urban environments. He felt that the historic city and its communities were inextricably woven-in like tweed, and a true beauty came from this eclectic mix, not in the ghetto creation of artificial urban quarters.

In the light of the theme of this discussion, it is perhaps not unsurprising that the flagship for Art05 should have comprised its very own public artwork. Unveiled by Tracey Emin, 5 ‘Roman Standard’ is her first work for the public realm, and is sited in front of the classical portico of ‘The Oratory’ beside Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Costing a reported £60,000 and commissioned directly by the BBC (in the same spirit they say, as Eric Gill being commissioned for his famous Prospero and Ariel sculptures at Broadcasting House in 1933), the work portrays a tiny contemporary Liverbird sat atop a thin 4-metre metal pole. The work is classed as temporary as current planning permissions extend only until 2008, though of course, much depends on public reaction (and any attempted thefts) as to whether the work will remain longer. Interestingly, both the original Liverbird and the Roman Empire used the same masculine power symbol of the eagle; but much like our modern-day Liverbird, Emin’s tiny bronze has morphed into a more mythical creature 6 (she states that it is not based on any particular species), and relates to her long-standing interest in birds representing freedom as “angels of the earth”. She sees her new ‘Roman Standard’ as alluding to the inner strength of femininity, being a delicate counterfoil to what she sees as the “oppressive and dark” masculine symbols of power seen in much public art today. The work aspires to appear and then disappear, and whilst not dominating, becoming a symbol for “hope, faith and spirituality.”

The reasons for Emin to site her piece, referencing neo-Roman architecture, behind the gates of John Foster’s miniature Greek Oratory are unclear. Perhaps it is just happy synchronicity then, that only a few hundred metres along the aptly named Hope Street, also sits the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, which is also in the advanced stages of realising a spiritual work of public art by another major female artist. Here, in the new Cathedral Garden (adjacent to the newly created ceremonial access, architect Sir Frederick Gibberd always dreamt of), sits the future site for a beautifully integrated work by artist Susanna Heron 7. Created in conjunction with architectural practice Hogben & Hale, it will comprise a circular stone platform set within the existing garden lawn, and is a simple design of hard black granite and soft white limestone, to evoke a reflective pool. Heron’s work has studiously evolved out of an introspective client and site consideration. Central to it all though, is the moment between “body and mind, mind and spirit, memory and ghost, past and future, eye and seeing, seeing and understanding.”  In contrast, the Emin piece perhaps represents a more spontaneous interpretation, appearing to respond intuitively to both to an immediate religious setting and the wider cultural context. For different reason, the beauty and delicacy of both works shines through, and certainly both share the potential of becoming real hidden gems within the city; to be discovered only through serendipitous accident. At the unveiling of ‘Roman Standard’, Emin talked of the potential “magic and alchemy” 8 of her public artwork, and arguably this sums up the quintessential element of what both these artworks set out to achieve. Though the jury is still out, public feedback on both pieces will hopefully reinforce the view that a masculine, ‘big is beautiful’ approach, is not always necessarily best; and that sometimes a more sensitive, feminine philosophy of ‘less is more’ can help create the elixir for a truer and more sustainable cultural regeneration for the city.

  1. fact.co.uk
  2. artscouncil.org.uk/art05
  3. http://www.liverpool08.com
  4. http://www.sculpture.org.uk/biography/RichardWentworth
  5. http://www.whitecube.com/html/artists/tre/tre_frset.html
  6. http://www.liverbirdology.com
  7. http://www.susannaheron.com
  8. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime

Ian Banks writes on behalf of the Public Art & Architecture unit at Arts Council England NW. The unit is co-funded by stakeholder RIBA NW for 2004/05. Ian Banks is now part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Public Arts, the Yorkshire-based public art and architecture agency, and runs his own small collaborative practice Atoll.

General information on Arts Council England and the NW public art and architecture stakeholder partnership can be viewed on www.artscouncil.org.uk and information portal www.publicartnorthwest.org.uk respectively. Information on Public Arts can be viewed on www.public-arts.co.uk and Atoll on www.atoll-uk.com

Categories: Writing

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