Named and shamed: the six worst works of British public art
Source:Art and design Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2015-02-14 Size:
These examples – from a dead tree in the middle of Kirkby to an eye-wounding erection off the coast of Tyneside – show how badly sculpture has lost its way...

These examples – from a dead tree in the middle of Kirkby to an eye-wounding erection off the coast of Tyneside – show how badly sculpture has lost its way

The B of the Bang sculpture in Manchester was dismantled in 2009 after a series of technical problems. Photograph: Paul Barker/AFP/Getty Images

I blame Thomas Cromwell. In real life the hero of Wolf Hall was the rottweiler of the Reformation who took an enthusiastic lead in ransacking a medieval artistic heritage rooted in shared beliefs, common symbols, and a popular visual language. The dissolution of the monasteries that Cromwell spearheaded shattered this culture of public art. Every British town once had its shrines to Mary, its statues of prophets and murals of martyrs. The artistic richness that visitors to Italian cities adore could once be enjoyed in British cities, not to mention village churches.

Now we have a blasted tree. Or at least, that’s what Kirkby on Merseyside now has in the name of public art. After a planned Tesco store was cancelled, all that remains of this commercial project in Kirkby’s town centre is a public artwork partly paid for by the troubled supermarket giant. The final work will include other elements, insists artist Geoff Wood, but so far it consists of a towering replica of a dead tree.

I quite like this austere image of a blasted environment. In a photograph in the Liverpool Echo it gravely comments on the ugly architecture that surrounds it. But that is an elitist point of view. It’s easy for a London-based art critic to say this is modern art. The reality is that it says nothing meaningful to or about Kirkby and its citizens. No wonder people are expressing their dislike on Facebook: “What a monstrosity...”

Public art has been an obsession in Britain ever since Antony Gormley erected theAngel of the North in 1998. Almost all of it is awful. At best the silly sculptures we have scattered across the land are surreal distractions, comically complementing the identikit coffee shops and clothestore chains that make each town similar. Some places go for statues of footballers, others prefer an abstract starburst or a conceptual piece like Gillian Wearing’s homage to a Birmingham family, but it is wrong to see this in terms of a shallow debate about artistic styles. The badness of modern British public art is not a question of it being too “modern”, or not modern enough.

The misery of the unmoving, unengaging sculptures with which we have defaced our cities arises from their total lack of purpose. They are – 400 years on – still scarred by the Reformation’s attack on idols. I am not saying we need to raise lots of Catholic statues everywhere. But we need some kind of common culture, some shared set of beliefs, values, call them what you will, before we can make art that really reflects communities back to themselves. The sense of a shared narrative in old cathedrals and churches is moving – whatever your beliefs. We’re living in a cold desacralised Britain whose everyday artistic glories, as Seamus Heaney writes in his poem Leavings about the desecration of Ely’s Lady Chapel, were “threshed clear by Thomas Cromwell”.

It takes a Rodin to transcend the modern world’s lack of belief. His Burghers of Calais in Westminster Gardens is Britain’s most moving modern work of public art. Rodin rediscovers a universal humanity not in religion, but a secular and hopefully pretty much universal capacity for compassion. Only by creating art with Rodin’s sense of the frail human condition can our towns and cities replace the void of lost religion and rekindle art’s human purpose.

Sadly, the six worst works of British public art named and shamed below show how far we are from that ideal.

Maggi Hambling, ‘Scallop’, Aldeburgh

Maggi Hambling’s sculpture Scallop, Aldeburgh. Photograph: Alamy

This giant sea shell manages to be both whimsical and banal. It has a fey defiance as if it was saying something very poetic, and yet what could be more obvious and unimaginative than a sea shell ... by the sea? Residents complained when it was unveiled that it spoils the seaside view. It does.

B of the Bang, Manchester

Thomas Heatherwick’s colossal metal starburst (see main picture) was supposed to represent the energy of a sprinter leaping from the starting blocks. In reality it was static and heavy with no feel of movement at all. It hung surreally and scarily high above houses and cars with no sense of necessity, let alone beauty. No one mourned when technical problems led to it being dismantled.

Sean Henry, ‘Couple’, Newbiggin by the Sea, Tyneside

Sean Henry’s Couple sculpture, Newbiggin by the Sea. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

The stupidest sculpture of the past 20 years has to be this eye-wounding erection on a seashore that never did any harm to anyone. The tasteless, dull, idioticfigures of a man and woman are placed, with monumental ugliness, on top of a gigantic scaffold just to make sure the artwork totally wrecks its environment.

Brian Fell, ‘Footplate’, Flint, North Wales

Perhaps it is unfair to single out this vaguely surrealist sculpture of a foot suspended in space that puzzles passengers on trains between London and Holyhead, but it typifies the bizarre objects commissioned not just by big cities but also towns the length and breadth of Britain. Why did Flint need to decorate its railway station in this way?

Kirkby Tree

A generous critic might see Kirkby’s controversial tree as austere modern art, but in reality it typifies the deep gulf between art and community that makes our public sculpture so utterly pointless.

Gloucester Tower

  Kyneburgh Tower, Gloucester. Photograph: Alamy

This meaningless, cold, sterile creation contrasts wretchedly with the glorious art inside Gloucester’s pre-Reformation cathedral. The fan-vaulted monastic cloisters, eloquent tombs and soaring sculpted angels in this great medieval gesamtkunstwerk are a dazzling survival from an age when all art was public art.

[Editor] 万兰

    Artintern