Big art and Perspex panels

From graffiti and street art to massive corporate-funded structures such as the Ebbsfleet Landmark (the size of the Statue of Liberty, twice as tall as Antony Gormley's Angel of the North), public art has never been more in vogue. Steve Platt, a reformed 'graffitist', surveys the artistic landscape

August 15, 2008
10 min read


Steve Platt is a former editor of the New Statesman and a regular writer for Red Pepper.


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Now this is getting silly. A series of emails released to the Camden New Journal under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that the local council has been trying to obtain insurance cover for some of street artist Banksy’s work on its property. One of the works in question is an early Banksy stencil of a rat carrying a placard with an exclamation mark on it. It’s on the side of the council headquarters in King’s Cross, north London, and is currently protected by a scratched and grubby Perspex panel. When council workers repainted the wall last year they didn’t dare replace the panel because they were afraid that removing it would damage the original graffiti.

The rat used to be a bit of fun, at once at home in and livening up the grimy streetscape. Now it’s ‘art’ and, like the Banksy-adorned wall in Portobello Road that attracted a winning bid of £208,100 in an online auction in January, it’s become a commodity that has lost any connection with the ethos that originally inspired it.

What Banksy should do now to preserve his artistic integrity is to flood the market with stencilled street art, playing capitalism at its own game by using the laws of supply and demand to prick the absurdist bubble. It’s the only way to take back control from the folk who think that every act of creative energy has its price.

Spray it loud

I had a brief career as a graffiti artist myself. Jill Posener wrote me up as a ‘graffitist’ (she made up the description, although she put the word into my mouth) in her 1982 book Spray it Loud, which featured some of my efforts. I got picked up by the Special Patrol Group for my troubles, paint pot and dripping brush in hand; and I think I’m the only person alive who ever got prosecuted for ‘putting up posters without permission on the market buildings’ in Widnes. (Actually it was a hand-painted eight-verse poem but the magistrate ruled that was the same thing legally.) A couple of us even redecorated Aldwych tube station, which closed in 1994, in some long-forgotten protest over democracy in Greece.

But no one ever thought of preserving my efforts behind Perspex. I got fined a few times but never got paid for anything, and eventually moved on to other artistic outlets. Now I complain with the rest of them about scratched graffiti tags on bus windows and in communal stairwells. (Since this is the only criminal act that comes with a signed confession as a matter of course, why do the police find it so very difficult to deal with?) And instead of doing it myself I write copy for Channel 4\’s Big Art Project website and the accompanying Big Art Mob, which has won Royal Television Society and Guardian New Media awards for an innovative set-up whereby people can post photos of ‘public art’ from around the country via their mobile phones.

The Big Art Project is based on the notion that public art can transform a space into a place. When a community participates in that transformation, it can change how people feel about living in or visiting that place. So, in October 2005, Channel 4 invited nominations for sites – and communities – where they wanted new works of public art. More than 1,400 members of the public across the UK responded, and seven sites were selected where the local communities have been involved in choosing the kind of public art they want to create and which artists they want to commission to do it.

It’s a ‘bottom-up’ approach that has produced very different outcomes in different places. In Burnley, the first of the seven commissions to be unveiled in March, the Greyworld arts collective has worked with 15 local teenagers to produce Invisible, a series of paintings that can only be seen when lit from an ultraviolet source. The paintings include a series of ‘local heroes’, who range from the Burnley FC mascot to a Big Issue seller, a community worker, a head teacher and a local actor and dramatist.

In St Helens, a group of ex-miners and other local people has commissioned Dream, a 20-metre-high sculpture of a child’s head, from the internationally renowned artist Jaume Plensa for the former Sutton Manor colliery site. In east London, the arts and architecture collective, Muf, is working on a community engagement project to transform the ‘Beckton Alp’, a former spoil heap alongside the A13 that enjoyed a second incarnation as an artificial ski-slope but is now derelict. Other projects are taking place in Mull, Belfast, Sheffield and Cardigan, where the local community is discussing a proposal with Canadian multimedia artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, best known for his huge hi-tech, interactive works using lights and shadows.

Sheffield has been the most controversial site, with Big Art Project supporters pitted against the E On energy giant in defence of the Tinsley cooling towers, which E On has insisted on demolishing. The iconic 76-metre high towers, just 17 metres from the M1 and the first things that most people see on entering Sheffield, have been described as ‘the Stonehenge of the carbon age’ by Antony Gormley, the artist whose Angel of the North has probably done most to demonstrate the potential of mega-public art. Their selection as one of the seven Big Art Project sites was a victory for local campaigners battling for their preservation. When E On refused to back down on demolition and instead offered £500,000 towards the cost of a new regional artwork, the campaigners pulled out of the planning group.

When it comes to a clash between public art (or the preservation of our industrial heritage) and profit, it’s obvious which way big business will turn – and, as in the case of the Tinsley cooling towers, which were getting in the way of a new £60-million biomass power station, the local planning authorities are generally only too eager to march to the profit-makers’ drum. Increasingly, though, business is also alert to the potential of public art in marking out its own profit-making space.

Angel of the South

So it’s no surprise, for instance, that the Thames Gateway development at Ebbsfleet in north Kent includes plans for a £2-million landmark mega-sculpture to put itself on the map (literally, since there’s nothing there at the moment). The ‘Angel of the South’, as it’s inevitably been dubbed, although its official title is the Ebbsfleet Landmark Project, is going to be twice as big as its northern cousin, about the size of the Statue of Liberty. It’s being funded to the tune of £1 million by Land Securities, which is building a new residential development on the site; the rest is being raised by the project manager, Futurecity Arts. The ‘UK’s leading cultural agency’, as Futurecity bills itself, specialises in ‘kick-starting the regeneration of run down, brownfield and post-industrial areas in towns and cities across the UK’. To this list, presumably, it must now add greenfield sites and hills in Kent.

The shortlist of five entries to the competition to design the Ebbsfleet landmark is currently on display, appropriately enough perhaps, at the Bluewater shopping centre. A decision is expected in the autumn between a huge white horse (Mark Wallinger, of State Britain fame); a giant Meccano construction (Richard Deacon); a modernist mausoleum (Daniel Buren); a winged white-concrete disc (Christopher Le Brun); and an artificial mini-mountain with the cast of a house on top (Rachel Whiteread).

The project is being accompanied by ‘one of the largest ever public engagement programmes’ to ‘involve and inform’ the local community and ‘to create a legacy of community ownership of the landmark’. I am not one of those who sneers at the significance of such initiatives, however they are devised and funded, and I have no doubt that the Ebbsfleet Landmark will come to be as highly regarded and locally loved, if that’s not too strong a word, as the Angel of the North, the concrete cows of Milton Keynes, the Tinsley cooling towers, the Millennium Dome or any number of other monuments over which the local community had little or no say in their construction. But it is impossible to resist the conclusion that what is happening here is that the public engagement programme has more in common with a massive, modern advertising campaign to induce brand loyalty than a public participation exercise to find out what people want in the first place.

What the public wants

Of course, what people want when it comes to public art isn’t easy to discern – and it often varies from one person to the next. There are those who can’t wait to say goodbye to the Tinsley cooling towers. There are those who fought for years to stop a statue of Nelson Mandela finding a site in central London (and there are those who felt that a statue of Winston Churchill required improving with red paint and a grass mohican). There are those who believe that the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square should be reserved for yet another statue of a traditional British war hero rather than its current showcasing of different sculptures – living sculptures, 2,400 of them standing on it for an hour apiece, when Antony Gormley gets his go shortly.

I like Gormley’s work, by the way, but I do wish he wouldn’t open his mouth. He may be good at public art but like many artists his ideas about the effect it has on the public seems intended to turn them off. ‘Through elevation onto the plinth and removal from common ground, the body becomes a metaphor, a symbol and allows us to reflect on … the individual in contemporary society,’ he said on winning the chance to put his proposal on the fourth plinth.

No doubt there are readers who think Gormley’s words make perfect sense, and that is as it should be with art and artists. They are meant to challenge; we are meant to disagree. But the fact that the public rarely agrees over what constitutes ‘good’ public art can militate against anything truly imaginative. Seeking to please (or at any rate not offend) the public can too often lead to the corporate and the bland, a kind of lowest common artistic denominator, taking the place of real creativity.

Perhaps the most interesting things about Channel 4’s Big Art Project is what people have chosen to post to the website as examples of ‘public art’ in their localities. Banksy and Banksy-wannabes proliferate, and street art and graffiti makes up the biggest single category. But there are also people’s photos of performance art and installations, alongside architecture, statues and sculptures, by well-known artists and unknowns, temporary and more permanent, from the UK and worldwide. Some of them are good, some are bad, some indifferent (make up your own minds). Some of them will even have been insured by the local council.

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Steve Platt is a former editor of the New Statesman and a regular writer for Red Pepper.


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