The new sculptures visible from the M9 are a reminder that good public art beautifies our shared spaces, writes Tiffany Jenkins
We are all familiar with ugly public space, the shabby streets, parks and squares that we walk past every day, the kind that could do with some care and attention to make them that little bit more attractive to hang about in. Given this is where we spend much of our time, our surroundings could do with being pleasant.
In the last few decades there has been an attempt to improve these spaces with the proliferation of commissioned public art, but this has had, shall we say, uneven results, with a number of unbidden and ultimately unwanted sculptures springing up all over the country, provoking angry reactions. Like the report “What’s That Thing?” by the critic Igor Toronyi-Lalic in which he accuses public art of “making our built environment less attractive, not more”. Public art, he rages, has “infuriated the public” and “alienated the arts world”. It’s a waste of money, he concludes. He’s not completely wrong.
But there have been a number of successful pieces in Scotland in the last few years and these are worth paying attention to, partly to figure out what works. I predict that The Kelpies, a colossal monument of two horse heads made out of 600 tonnes of steel by sculptor Andy Scott, which has just been unveiled near Falkirk, will be one such success.
It is impossible to miss the towering equine heads when driving up the M9 motorway. We do not choose to see them – we cannot avoid them. Public art is different to the art that has been created by an artist and which ends up in a gallery that we can decide to visit or not. The artist working on public art is not completely free to follow their own vision. They have to say something meaningful about the place or the people where the work is situated, the work has to resonate with the public. Many art works have attempted to do this literally and unimaginatively: such as fish sculptures or bird models in a seaside town, or are pieces that do the opposite and are imposed without any engagement with the area, which really could be anywhere, and thus fail.
The Kelpies gets it right. At 100 feet tall, the silver beasts are higher than the Angel of the North, but like Antony Gormley’s popular sculpture which is inspired by an industrial past whilst looking to the future, The Kelpies speak to the place in which they are located. Andy Scott’s piece nods to the working horses which used to pull barges along canals and worked in the fields where steel horse heads now stand. They are impressive, stunning even, and I think people will become attached to them and proud of them. Of course, they will not please everyone, but that it is not possible as no such art work exists.
Critical commentators uneasy with the growth in such work have argued for more public consultation on the proposed pieces, given it is called “public art”. And in the past when there was a similar mania for creating such works, people were more involved. Indeed, look around at all the Victorian sculpture in Britain and you will find that many of them were funded by public subscription via different political and social groups. Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, London, was partly paid for by donations from the City; Glasgow’s Duke of Wellington statue, of Conegate fame, was paid for by public subscription to the tune of almost £10,000. In the book Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester there is an account of how Bolton Conservatives’ unveiling of a statue to Disraeli and others like it, “took on the tenor of political meetings”.
That level of engagement is enviable and shows us that too many of these initiatives are done in our name but without us. But where there have been attempts to involve the public it has often resulted in very bland work. This is because many projects have been conducted through consultation, creating public art by committee, and that has ended up pleasing no one very much.
At a recent debate in Glasgow on public art, the North Lanarkshire councillor David Fagan, who is involved in the £288 million refurbishment of Glasgow subway, which includes art works within the modernised stations, made an apposite point: “Consultation doesn’t work. If I am going to be kicked for a piece of art work, and I fully expect to be, than I want to be kicked for a piece that I have chosen, that I can stand by.” Public art, though, executed in our name, requires the vision of an artist who can shape and lead public taste without patronising people.
The Glasgow subway renovation is likely to be another success story. The ambitious project will see 15 stations modernised and art work commissioned for each of them. The first mural was unveiled at Hillhead station, last year, and is by the highly esteemed artist and writer Alasdair Grey. Musician Paul Buchanan has been unveiled as working on something special for Kelvinhall station. More names will follow. This project, then, is not just about better transport – vital as that is – but a much nicer environment in which to travel and one that is attuned to the rhythm of Glasgow.
A note of caution needs to be sounded, however. As is often with way with art works today, they are asked to do a lot for the money. Public art, it is said by many who commission it, will regenerate the local area, attract tourists, improve the economy, raise self-esteem, and nurture the identity of the community, and so on. This asks too much of art and burdens the artist. And such demands on art usually accompany a broader failure to address material inequality, poor infrastructure and social problems. No more should be asked of public art than it beautify our shared space.
Every week I make a point of walking down to Waverley station from North Bridge via the Scotsman Steps. This glorious stairwell opened in 2011 and is also an art work by the Turner Prize winner Martin Creed. Made of 104 steps, each one is clad in different colours of marble with contrasting patterns. It is a great improvement on the old steps, even if they remain smelly. They are fit for the feet of a king or a queen, but they are for us. Improving these everyday spaces puts a spring in one’s step.