The following is an extended version of a short talk given at the Royal College of Art on 23rd March 2017 on the occasion of the “What’s That Thing?” Awards, organised by @elliswoodman of the Architecture Foundation and @igortoronyi of the Spectator, with the winner announced by Stephen Bayley.
The Difference Between How a Thing Looks and What It Means.
I moved to Bermondsey Street, South London, about 22 years ago, when it was pretty much of a white working-class enclave and commercial area. These days it is a hipster hangout and restaurant destination, so it was a surprise when a couple of years ago this decidedly unhip installation appeared on a newly-laid bit of pavement at the junction of Bermondsey Street and Tower Bridge Road. Not being much of a fan of public sculpture, being as how it has such an appalling track record, I tried for a while to ignore it. I thought too that it would make a good candidate for Igor’s “What’s That Thing?” Awards; and it annoyed me. Why and what was this horrid thing at the end of my road, ruining the streetscape?
But it is in fact a war memorial, and you can’t say much against, or deny a place to, a war memorial, even if the execution is execrable – as in my opinion, this is.
Poised at the far end of the long and rather minimalist stretch of slanting and shaped stonework with an odd bit of balustrade attached is the figure, in rather surrealist open metalwork sketch form, of one Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie. Like most bits of art these days, you have to read the label – in this case a large bronze plaque at the far end, which I had contrived to ignore. This plaque (eventually) told me that on the 23rd of April 1918, the nineteen-year-old McKenzie, of HMS Vindictive (!), had taken part in the “Zeebrugge raid”, a famous piece of First World War history, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross for “Most Conspicuous Gallantry”.
It’s an honourable and noble subject-matter (if you like that sort of thing) about a local hero. But it’s not quite the whole story, for which you have to go to Wikipedia. I had assumed, fairly reasonably I think, that Able Seaman McKenzie had perished by going down with his ship, symbolised by the sinking deck of the stonework platform. But that’s not true. After gunning down several Germans, he was indeed wounded, but fully recovered and got to go to Buckingham Palace to receive his Victoria Cross from King George V. A few weeks later, only days after his 20th birthday, he died of flu in the great pandemic of 1918. And the stonework plinth is in fact a piece of Zeebrugge harbour, donated 100-odd years later by the good people of Flanders.
It’s a great story behind a rather baffling and unconvincing object.
This rather less honourable piece of art was one of the shortlisted works for the “Fourth Plinth” project in Trafalgar Square back in 2010. Called Battenberg by Brian Griffiths, it was to be made out of bricks. I was interested enough at the time to take some notes of the comments on this particular round of “plinthism”, and jotted down the following from one Louise Jury, who was (but is no more) the Chief Arts Correspondent of the Evening Standard:
“[the work] transforms the Battenberg as a symbol of teatimes past into a contemporary comment on commodity, commemoration and collective identity.”
Interestingly, the last two attributes could be equally true (or more true?) of the above memorial to McKenzie. But of course the Battenberg has also got a hefty slice of added irony, which makes it hip. The important thing to note here is that Ms. Jury made her interpretation of what the work might mean before it was made. I assume the work never was made, since it was not chosen in the end to grace the plinth in question. Perhaps it didn’t need to be made, as we had already got the meaning?
This is Pipe Organ with ATM, by Allora & Calzadilla. This too was shortlisted the same year as the Battenberg thing. When you withdrew cash from the ATM, the organ was going to play a tune. We look again to Ms. Jury for meaning:
“[This work] addresses a range of themes and subjects such as personal banking, global financial systems, commerce, the sacred and profane, music making and personal and public space in a humorous manner.”
This too never made it further than the shortlist, though one has to wonder why, since it had addressed so many outstanding issues of the day. And had humour, allegedly.
The late great Bryan Robertson said this about art with a message:
“Art is many things but it is not primarily a means of communication as we normally understand that utility. There are easier and certainly less laborious ways for one person to express an idea directly to another than by painting a picture or making a sculpture.”
The two contenders for the Fourth Plinth mentioned above eventually lost out to Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 by Elmgreen and Dragset and Katharina Fritsch’s bright blue Cock, which she herself described as “playing with the double meaning of the word… It is dealing with the male presence in Trafalgar Square”. Indeed. Carry On Up Nelson’s Column.
You can see the full list here in Dezeen. Yes, because they are in fact all “designs” for sculptures. Their meaning is sorted out before they are made, and the making has no connection to the meaning. Just how stiltedly academic and infantile is this process? Think up an idea – the dafter the better – sketch it out, make a model, secure some funding, get a gang of technicians to build it. Sad.
This is one of mine. You won’t see the likes of this in any public place any time soon. There are health and safety issues to showing these in public, but like any practical problem, where there is a will there is a way. But I am, like a number of abstract sculptors, effectively debarred from entering into public commissions or competitions.
First of all, I don’t have any ideas. Those that do occasionally enter my head, I try my best to work around and out of the sculpture. So I can’t write a proposal or synopsis for a sculpture. Nor can I respond to a “theme” imposed by a competition. I don’t do subject matter.
Secondly, I can’t make a model. I have no idea what I’m going to make when I start, or what it will look like, or end up as. So what can I present to a commissioning body, other than a finished work?
Here’s another new one:
I work intuitively and spontaneously (as far as it is possible with welding equipment etc.), improvising as I go, hour by hour, day by day, week by week. Maybe this will continue for months, maybe even years, before a piece is finished (that’s another essay). Whilst the work is in flux, everything can change. Works can be turned around or turned over; parts can be exchanged between different sculptures; sections can be returned to the scrap-pile; other sections can be imported from the scrap-pile; anything is possible, any change, according to some visual imperative, is countenanced. There is no fixed configuration. And no fixed meaning. Every time something in the work changes, the meaning changes too. Or perhaps the meaning disappears, only to hopefully reappear at some later date, in some later iteration.
I think this is a progressive and exciting way of working. It bonds the discovery of meaning in a work to the actual making of it. But how can this ungovernable and unpredictable process of making genuinely abstract art be accommodated into the circus that is public commissioning? Well, perhaps someone should try to make that work.
To bring us right up to date with the Fourth Plinth, this Heather Phillips sculpture has been chosen as one of this year’s current short-list that will actually get made and shown in Trafalgar Square. That oracle of the Guardian, Jonathan Jones, has already stated that it represents ”the doom of civilisation”. He may well be right. Then again, that’s a subject matter that might tax even a genius of the stature of Jan Brueghel.
And it does beg a few questions, if you’ll allow me. Like, for example, is there a better version of this work that would more perfectly symbolise our doom? I know, dumb question.
How about this: where is the humanity, the spontaneity, the originality in this nonsense? Where is the connection between making and meaning? The big, high profile sculpture projects and their attendant media hullabaloo, such as the Fourth Plinth and the Turbine Hall commissions and site-specific examples like Gormley’s ubiquitous standing figures, detract from what is really going on in sculpture, and what is really progressive. Meaning doesn’t come pre-packaged and is not to be found on a label or in a newspaper commentary. History will find it all out.
“Origin” by Solas Creative (who, what?) is the winner (or loser) of the “What’s That Thing?” worst piece of public art award 2017. “Imagine climbing the hills that surround Belfast and stumbling upon this 11-metre-high steel bollock. ‘It will be visible from a number of different points throughout the city,’ coos the Arts Council. Haven’t the people of Northern Ireland suffered enough?”
If Daniel Dennett’s description of consciousness as “a trillion mindless robots dancing” is valid – and it seems to me a non-metaphorical explanation both plausible and wonderful – then complex abstract art has the capacity to be the choreographer of that dance, or at the very least chime with some small part of it, without any need for metaphorical language or a culturally conditioned “conversation” of ideas, going instead straight for the central nervous system, via the eyes. Like great art always has done.
By contrast, simplistic or simplified abstract art like “Origin” above, along with a whole tranche of other semi- and sort-of-abstract art, relies far more in its attempt to elicit human content on a literal communication of a kind to which Robertson denies real validity. This sort of work must rely on metaphor for its message, and the simpler it becomes, the more reliant it is. Minimal Art, and minimalistic art likewise, become at last indistinguishable from conceptual art, which is nothing but metaphor. It just deals in things we know about already.
Robin Greenwood’s new sculpture can be seen at the Heritage Gallery in April, alongside other artists participating in Brancaster Chronicles, followed by a studio show of all six new pieces in June. For more information, use the contact form on the Brancaster website.
Well said Robin, it needed saying and you say it well. (I wonder what they made of it at the RCA ?) !
I personally have never believed that sculpture is a suitable medium for the expression of intense EXTERNAL human emotion: war, violence etc. It is an internalised art form, like music; it is primarily about itself, whatever the ‘subject’ or ‘content’. Which is,of course, not to say that it lacks the ability to contain and express profound emotion, but that that emotion is essentially non literal, conveying an idea through its fundamental plastic means, NOT illustrating it.
What I call ‘airport sculpture’ is typical of the ‘public’ genre, at best three dimensional graphic design, weakly emulating cliches from more robust and genuine sculptural effort, at worst a pot pourri of images culled from illustrative representations of ‘reality’, that purport to signify empathy with the ‘subject’; and, of course, as Robin points out, loaded with the now essential irony (mostly to give people something to talk about, failing any other aspect of greater interest).
Sad to say, the powers that be in commissioning agents such as urban councils, environmental / landscape designers, arts councils etc., etc. continue to insist that that is what the public want (based on the lowest common denominator of popular taste), and we continue to have our environment cluttered up with these ghastly illustrations of the abject decline of our visual culture.
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Robin’s work apart, are the ‘sculptures’ shown here 3-D cartoons (as in children’s story-telling)? This might be the result of trying to represent an ‘idea’ (and/or obtain public monies) that has populist appeal – though I’m sure that ‘Origin’ might buck this trend. The first example is truly execrable – poor old Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie must be turning in his grave. I’m sure it could be argued that Public Art gives sculpture a bad name. But then maybe sculpture (and painting et al) is only as ‘good’ as the talent pool provides? (I’m sure that’s unfair comment – so shoot me down gently.)
Robin’s reference to “making and meaning” strikes a chord – I immediately thought of Giacometti when I read this. Caro too. Perhaps sculpture (and painting) fails when it is designed first? The original cartoons (from the tradition of fresco painting in Italy) provided guidelines, within which the artist could improvise or amend accordingly. The alternative is an Airfix-kit process which Heather Phillips’, “The End” demonstrates.