The King and I

1972 was the year of a Nixon landslide, the Vietnam War, a mainland IRA bombing campaign, the trial of the Angry Brigade and various labour disputes and strikes in the UK. It also saw the unmanned Soviet spaceship LUNA 20 land on the moon and return to Earth, seven days later, carrying fifty-five grams of lunar soil. According to the architectural theorist Charles Jencks, it was also the year that Modernism died, on 15 July 1972 at precisely 3:32pm, with the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe mass housing development in St. Louis, less than twenty years after its construction.

This was also the year that Nicholas Monro’s giant fibreglass sculpture, ‘King Kong’, was installed outside of the Bullring in Birmingham. Its monstrous scale and ambivalent relation to the bog standard municipal modernism of the Bullring’s architecture confused both shoppers and council officials, who had expected a more site-responsive piece. Predictably, after its six month installation period, Birmingham council declined the option to purchase ‘King Kong’ from the Arts Council. This decision effectively ended its rarified status as an art object and condemned it to an itinerant existence. Forty-four years later, in a return to rival the drama of LUNA 20’s repatriation, ‘King Kong’ was recuperated by the Henry Moore Institute as an artwork once again.

&Model’s new exhibition, The King and I, tells the story of these intervening years, where ‘King Kong’, amongst other things, was turned into an impromptu picket line, subjected to various new humiliating paint jobs, hauled around the markets of provincial Scottish towns, forced to be the mascot of a used car lot and turned into probably the world’s strangest memorial object-cum-garden ornament.

Monro, much like ‘King Kong’ himself, always stood as an outsider to the hegemonic Modernism of his day. Read as a social sculpture, it embodies the various insider/outsider and centre/periphery debates that emerged following the decline of the grand narratives of Modernism. Following this argument, The King and I could also be read as a critique of the Henry Moore Institute’s parallel exhibition City Sculpture Projects 1972 and its institutional reinstatement of ‘King Kong’ as an artwork.

More importantly, it also tells the story of the affective and social investment placed in public art by those whom ‘the Artworld’, to borrow Danto’s loaded term, would otherwise exclude. This centre/periphery theme is played out through most of the works on show, but narrated most powerfully through the artworks, photographs, and ephemera in the vitrines on the top floor, which includes Garry Barker’s ‘Two Sculptures of Our Time: Remembering 1972’ (2016). Here ‘King Kong’ is remembered as a socially constructed symbol of protest, play, civil unrest, myth, memory and community identity.

The King and I&Model, Leeds, 26 January 2017 – 18 February 2017 (City Sculpture Projects 1972, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 24 November 2016 – 19 February 2017).

Richard Hudson-Miles is Head of Contextual & Theoretical Studies at Leeds College of Art.

Photo: Striking builders with King Kong, Birmingham Evening Mail, 1972.