Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pointing the wrong way?

The recent issue of City Life, the 'house journal' of Newcastle City Council, has arrived. No more glossy covers (though a cover photograph of a tiny tot Chinese child is a delightful sight).

Inside I came across this article on the installation of a public sculpture on the 'Battlefield' open space. (See attached scan 144 KB. I hope City Life do not mind me reproducing this since it is in the public interest.) This is most timely, since I wanted to write about this sculpture and what it appears to signify, for the site if not in aesthetic terms.

Unfortunately the sculpture had barely been in place before ground level electric lights, which were, I presume, to have illuminated the sculpture at night, were thoroughly and systematically smashed. I took the close-up photograph (below) soon after installation was completed in July 2007. Thus far no one has felt moved to write graffiti on it. I hope it stays that way.

I sympathise with the aims of those who seek to give an identify to the site; indeed, it was a similar impulse which led to my own effort with this blog. However, I have not seen any contemporary UK public sculpture – produced since the end of the First World War 1914–18 that is – which means anything. I feel the endeavour to have been misdirected.

Fiona Grey (described in the article as a "local designer" – "sculptor", would seem more appropriate) has produced a feature which is better than most, but not I think, by much. Partly this is because the very essence of public sculpture is belief: Pagan or mythical gods do best, followed by forgotten dignitaries, particularly if on horseback. The collapse of a belief in anything shared by society beyond the trivial level has had notable consequences for public visual statements. Collectively today the British, especially English, believe in few abstract ideas and as a result end up with over scaled executive desk ornaments wherever a 'statement' is called for.

I do not in any way blame Grey or Councillor Stephen Psallidas (on Grey's right in the photograph) for subsequent damage. But I do think the way forward is in a different direction to that which the sculpture ("way marker") points.

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