Latent Voices:
How public art of the past can speak in the present

Episode 1 – Satisfy Me

I am in Newcastle, walking along the river Tyne. On the opposite bank a text artwork by Monica Bonvicini ‘speaks’ from the external wall of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. “Satisfy Me”, the large metal letters implore. I am tired, I have a headache and I feel dehydrated. The words resonate first with my urge for coffee. Will the BALTIC do a good cappuccino I wonder? Bonvicini’s phrase evinces my desire for instant gratification.

I initially read the words as my own voice, internalised. Then, almost immediately I make a mental leap to an imagined ‘me’ of the general public. Not a mass, but a collection of individuals, each hailed by the gleaming silver. The words ‘Satisfy Me’ evoke an individuated consumer who seeks (perhaps even feels they deserve) to have their needs met. It’s a ‘me’ that resonates with the Brexit clamour, in which the people have spoken and their voices must be heard.

Monica Bonvicini, ‘Satisfy Me Flat’, 2010. Exterior installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: John McKenzie © 2016 BALTIC.

I find myself thinking two things at once:

  1. Ought artists aim to satisfy the public?
  2. How did we get here, to Brexit and Trump?

I can’t quite reconcile the two thoughts. I don’t know if their pairing is rational, but I sense both have something to do with the state of the public sphere in our neoliberal world.

The encounter between art and the public has been a concern since at least the 1600s with the inauguration of the Paris Salon, coinciding roughly with the invention of ‘the public’ as a category of property owning men. From here we inherit a notion of galleries as kind of ideal public space.

Yet it’s a public space many don’t enter and in recent years, funders’ attention has shifted to engagement, to ‘great art for everyone’. It’s an ambition that’s hard to fault. Still, the parallel need to diversify income streams raises a dilemma. If measuring success comes down to numbers (how many took part, how much was earned?) then art – Bonvicini’s words goad – might become a pleasing sideshow, or an inadvertent advert for the gallery’s cafe or shop.

 

Episode 2 – My Echo Chamber

I am at work. It’s my lunch break and I am scrolling through Facebook. I see a photograph of a twenty-foot fiberglass gorilla, recumbent on the back of a flatbed truck. It startles me, I pause briefly but my engagement is fleeting. I scroll on through friends’ proclamations, through news and fake news. That evening, on Twitter, I see the gorilla again. Now upright, it stands in a familiar public place, guarding Leeds’ Henry Moore Institute gallery. Over the coming days, in a drip-feed of titbits, I grasp its significance and eventually visit the show.

‘King Kong’, by Nicholas Monro, was created for a ‘hugely ambitious’, commercially sponsored project in 1972 that saw experimental large-scale sculptures sited in eight cities in England and Wales for a period of six months. The Institute’s City Sculpture Projects 1972 revisits the venture; exhibiting sculptures, sketches, proposals and maquettes alongside photographic documentation of works in situ, and archival material, such as newspaper cuttings, pertaining to the public’s response.

Installation view, City Sculpture Projects 1972, Courtesy of Henry Moore Institute.

The Institute’s motivation for choosing this moment to revisit the project is not explicitly stated. Yet the telling of the project’s story is heavily focussed on an unfavourable public reaction. For instance, a Liverpool city councillor described William Tucker’s work – rejected by both Liverpool and Newcastle ­­– as resembling the ‘collapsed lungs of a lung cancer patient’. Barry Flanagan’s work for Laundress Green, Cambridge was dubbed ‘revolting’ by a local vicar and was subsequently vandalised. Ultimately none of the host cities chose to permanently adopt their betrothed (which had been the project’s original aim, initiated by former Arnolfini Director, Jeremy Rees, and funded by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation, a South African cigarette company).

The artists were also critical of the value of their work, as evidenced in extracts from a 1972 special edition of Studio International. Kenneth Martin asks: ‘What is the function of a city sculpture? To appeal to and express the multitude and/or the individual?’ Liliane Lijn notes that most interesting for her was the confrontation between her work and an unfamiliar public. Garth Evans takes this investigation somewhat further. During the exhibition, he spent time in Cardiff standing next to his sculpture, asking the public for their responses. Unaware that he was the artist they answered candidly. Comments, presented here in an audio recording, mostly tend towards the negative: ‘what is it?’ or ‘what’s it for?’ One child is more optimistic. His evaluation: ‘it’s better than anything else anyway’.

 

Episode 3 – Who are The Public?

Back in Newcastle, I encounter more documentation of past public art in Out There: Our Post War Public Art, at the Historic England property Bessie Surtee’s House. It is the second outing for this small but comprehensive display, exhibited first in mid 2016 at London’s Somerset House. In contrast to the more ambivalent curatorial tone of City Sculpture Projects, Historic England seem assured about the included work’s worth. The purpose of the exhibition is to advocate for recognition, public awareness and listing.

Photographs and commentary highlight key moments or themes in post-war public art. For example, the New Towns (Peterlee, Harlow and Glenrothes) and The Festival of Britain instituted multiple government funded artistic commissions. The City Sculpture Project also makes an appearance, marking the shift toward project-based methodologies, more varied materials and visual languages. But excepting this inclusion and a panel about Gateshead’s recent public art, the emphasis is on earlier permanently-sited modernist sculpture; government funded, mostly abstract or semi figurative work.

Henry Moore, ‘Draped Seated Woman’, 1957-8, Tower Hamlets. © Historic England.

It’s hard not to be nostalgic for this post-war work, or if not for the work itself, then for an implicit utopian vision, advanced by government support at the time and today embraced as heritage. Towns such as Harlow, with its master plan drawn up in 1947, had art integrated (or so it seems) into every building and every street. This was the era of the NHS, the Arts Council and a belief in universal education. Public space was a shared endeavour. Such sentiments are echoed by the artist Bob and Roberta Smith. Supporting a campaign to save Henry Moore’s ‘Draped Seated Woman’ (1957-58) from capital-raising sale by Tower Hamlets council, he proclaimed the sculpture – colloquially known as ‘Old Flo’ – a symbol of a post-war era when ‘people equated public space with freedom’.

But before I wax too lyrically about the communities and public spaces of the past, there is a question to consider. Who is the ‘our’ stipulated in the Historic England exhibition’s title? Who constitutes the public? Collective conceptions of identity are not neutral or unchanging. Public space is contested, formed and re-formed. The post-war era emphasised nation states and self-determination, whereas the present moment has less of a clear, unified programme.

Episode 4: Hope for the Future?

What do these two exhibitions, City Sculpture Projects 1972 and Out There: Our Post War Public Art, tell us? Why have they appeared, concurrently, now? And how do they address my parallel questions provoked by Bonvicini’s words?

In a short film accompanying Out There, researcher Rebecca Farley suggests public art introduces ‘a different voice and maybe a different layer of narrative’ into public space. It is an idea that appeals. But whose voice, I wonder, and different to what?

To answer these nagging questions, I turn to an article by Grant Kester: ‘Crowds and Connoisseurs: Art and The Public Sphere in America’ (Amelia Jones, ed. A Companion to Contemporary Art since 1945, 2006). Kester makes a distinction between two kinds of artworks: those that are intended to unify a diverse public ‘through the mythic language of ur-form’, and those that aim to rupture norms creating ‘enlightened, but isolated, monads’. It is perhaps crude to apply this typology to the exhibitions under consideration here (thereby ignoring the nuances of individual works and the complexities of Kester’s argument), but I am going to do it anyway.

Broadly speaking, the works included in Out There fulfil the first of Kester’s models. It was aimed at unifying and articulating a collective voice in line with the political consensus of the post-war era. With the passing of time, however, the work has become decidedly out of sync. Consider Elisabeth Frink’s ‘Desert Quartet’ (1989) – saved by a last-minute listing by the DCMS from being removed (and presumably sold) by the corporate owners of a Worthing shopping centre. This story provides a moment of counter narrative, of public against private interests.

Elizabeth Frink, ‘Desert Quartet’, 1989, Worthing, West Sussex. © Historic England.

The campaigners’ case against the removal of Frink’s work included the fact that a 1990 ceremony had demonstrably gifted the work to the people of Worthing. Moreover, its original, conditional planning consent stipulated that the work would be ‘permanently placed’. This was a long-term vision that runs counter to the short-term, profit-driven emphases of neoliberalism. So, although simple nostalgia is problematic, the exhibition propounds the past as a kind of check upon the present. It is a reminder that things once were and could again be different.

City Sculpture Project, in contrast, tends toward Kester’s second model. Whether intentionally or not, the pieces disquieted the public and actively foregrounded each artist’s individual voice. Though some temporary alliances formed (such as a group of protesting builders who made ‘King Kong’ their mascot) the decisions by local authorities and constituents not to purchase the works suggest there was little interest in collective buy-ins. At the time, this was considered a failure of the project but I want to posit, in retrospect, that it advances a useful vision of public space as debated and multifarious. The works started a conversation that placed expectations upon the viewer. Form an opinion, voice a response – they asked – even if opinions differ.

When I first encountered Bonvicini’s words adorning BALTIC, I spoke them as my own. But they can just as easily be flipped, so that the artist speaks. Do we, as viewers, satisfy her? Rejecting the denigration of experts, that our contemporary culture seems to impel, this act of voicing prompts reflection on our own adequacy: are we good interlocutors? Do we put in the effort? Are we worthy of the artwork?

Barry Flanagan, ‘Cambridge piece’ (1972), City Sculpture Project commission. © The Estate of Barry Flanagan courtesy Plubronze Ltd.

A compulsion for short-term gratification is probably inherent in us all, and we have created a culture that panders to this; from cheap consumerism to online filtering that gives us only information that we want.

But do we really know what we want?

The decision to leave the EU can be read as an attempt to reassert a collective ‘we’ by members of the populace who feel its loss (although I don’t know if I can be so forgiving towards those who voted for Trump). Attributing the decline of collective identity to immigration and European rule (as I think many voters did) neglects the instrumental role that neoliberalism and corporate interests play in social individuation.

How to reconcile tensions between the global and the local, between individual, embodied experiences and the abstractions of international capital is a key challenge of our time. It is not possible to simply return to an idealised moment of the sovereign nation state. But what comes next? If we can’t go back, how do we best move forward?

The post-war sculpture exhibitions in Leeds and Newcastle don’t tell us how to re-imagine public space or art’s potential place within it. The works presented, firmly rooted in their historical moment, don’t speculate on the future of the public sphere or the future forms or popular reception of contemporary art. What they do, however, is remind us to take a longer view. They invite us to listen to voices and to imagine times other than our own. Put simply, art can encourage us to re-envision, to see the world from other points of view. This is an impetus that – post Brexit and post Trump – couldn’t be more important.

City Sculpture Projects 1972, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 24 November 2016 – 19 February 2017; Out There: Our Post-War Public Art, Bessie Surtees House, Newcastle upon Tyne, 8 September 2016 – 31 March 2017.

Amelia Crouch is an artist and writer based in Yorkshire.

Featured Image: Nicholas Monro, ‘King Kong’, 1972. Courtesy of Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.

 

Published 14.02.2017 by Lara Eggleton in Features

2,120 words