Art for all: five of London’s most powerful – and playful – public plays
This article is part of a London guide by FT Globetrotter
Contemporary successful public works are a rare beast – almost, by definition, an exception. Any piece that involves an artist trying to satisfy an audience of real estate developers, local councilors and members of the public will never have the boldness, subtlety and depth that art for art offers. Hard to find, then – but not impossible.
While Covid-19 cut Londoners off galleries and museums, those of us craving aesthetic stimulation scanned the silent cityscape. With London’s decades-long development boom, dozens of rambling, moralizing projects are blocking sidewalks and cluttering malls, abstract enough to suggest daring, figurative enough not to frighten horses. The selection here does not include any of these.
Instead, from the long-running Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square to Olympian nonsense, here is my pick of works if your eyes, brain, and mind need some refreshing.
Millicent Fawcett Statue (Gillian Wearing, 2018)
Parliament Square, Westminster, London SW1
It’s amazing (or maybe not) that it wasn’t just three years ago that London’s most important sculpture park acquired not just its first statue. through a woman but her first statue of a woman.
This sculpture of Fawcett, feminist and politician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is not just the commemoration of the protest, but a contemporary act of protest itself, challenging Members of the neighboring Houses of Parliament to do match their righteous rhetoric to action – and inspire citizens to demand change.
Beyond its political significance, what takes Wearing’s work a cut above is the detail: the wonderful realistic and human textures of his clothes and hair. No unattainable military glow here.
Maybe we should have a one-down, one-on-one public sculpture policy – for every slave trader or colonialist who faces calls to be overthrown, we could set up a suffragist, an abolitionist or someone else. ‘another neglected but necessary in its place.
The Fourth Plinth (1999-present)
Trafalgar Square, West End, London WC2
An equestrian statue of William IV was planned for this privileged location in the heart of London – outside the National Gallery, up the road to the Houses of Parliament – but since 1999, bold new commissions have occupied him instead. They respond to the monumentality of the square, to the militarist sculptures of the other three plinths and to the crises and neuroses of the nation.
He had much more success than hiccups, such as Rachel Whiteread’s resin cast of the plinth itself, placed upside down on it; Antony gormley “Another”, where members of the public had an hour on the pedestal to say or do whatever they wanted; and Michael Rakowitz Recreation of an ancient Assyrian sculpture from empty cans of Iraqi date syrup, a commentary on war and cultural vandalism.
Right now, Heather Phillipson is too aptly named “The end”, where a bumblebee clings to a cherry on a whipped cream swirl, with a massive fly, highlighting the almost apocalyptic banality (in the artist’s words) of the life and space around it.
Nelson’s Boat in a Bottle (Yinka Shonibare CBE, 2010)
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10
ShonibareThe ship’s starship was actually ordered for the Fourth Plinth in 2010, but don’t consider that choice a cheat – just a second bite of the icing. This is an exact 1:30 hour replica of HMS Victory, Horatio Nelson’s naval flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, with the correct number of guns and sails except for a provocative difference.
Instead of a cream canvas, this Victory is decked out in shiny batik-printed textiles, which Dutch merchants copied from their Indonesian colonies and exported to West Africa. With a simple substitution, Shonibare raises questions of empire, trade, capital and suffering. The fact that it’s in a bottle hints at the desire of some to keep history – their narrative of history – preserved, intact, airless.
Perhaps this Trafalgar ship was best placed in Trafalgar Square, but the privilege of seeing her again and again more than makes up for her change. south of the river.
Pecking Bird (Gary Hume, 2013)
Regent’s Place, corner of Brock Street and Hampstead Road, London NW1
Crossing this unpleasant junction, a no man’s land between the West End, Regent’s Park and King’s Cross, I never fail to smile when I notice Hume’s bird in its tropical colors, so striking between the gray of the offices and the black of the tar.
Hume, which was associated with the Young British artists 1990s movement, tends to work glossy paint, giving the highest shine, and birds have long been one of its motifs. He reduced them to a few colors, more a design object than an ornithological study, and their simplicity sometimes gave them a certain reserve or even a mystery.
I like to think that this aluminum bird, although commissioned by a real estate developer, is subversively nibbling at the culture of work, property and capital that gave birth to it.
Orbit of ArcelorMittal (Anish Kapoor, 2012)
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, London E20
I know, I said I was looking for works with depth, but I think it’s precisely the unhindered nonsense of Kapoor’s design that I like. The whole room is so useless – but she’s proud of this uselessness, she owns it.
Built for the Olympics, the 115-meter tall Orbit dominates slightly more practical sports venues built for gaming, including Zaha Hadid’s dive Aquatic Center, and looks like something that a civilization four thousand years into the future sent back. Her organic curls seem to have no other purpose than the expression of their own energy.
It has another artistic element, however: Carsten Höller has woven the world’s longest tunnel slide around orbit, part of his desire to evoke, in his words, “An emotional state that is a unique condition somewhere between delight and madness”, while also going “wheeeeee”.
If I ever ride a bike on my way to the mall in its shadow (the true Olympic legacy) I can do nothing but puzzle and wonder – which is far more than what most public art inspires.
What is your favorite piece of public art in London and why? Tell us in the comments – a selection of responses may be posted
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