Public art has to strike a difficult balance in a city like London that is constantly evolving. It carries with it associations of permanence but its presence isn’t always welcome and, perhaps worse than being openly disliked, works in situ over long periods of time can turn into street furniture, invisible to those that pass by day in day out—the ‘public’ for whom the work exists.
Tilted Arc (1981), Richard Serra’s public commission for the Foley Federal Plaza in New York is a great example of how these difficulties can play out. It was a huge rolled steel wall, which, after 1300 local employees signed a petition for its removal and a few high profile complaints about having to walk round it were lodged, ended in a lawsuit that resulted in its removal in 1989. Recently, Tower Hamlets made headlines with its plans to sell off its Henry Moore sculpture, nicknamed Old Flo, to pay for new services. Danny Boyle wrote an open letter to save it and a flash mob of people dressed up as Old Flo herded into the council offices as a protest. Art is public places is clearly polarizing.
Bold Tendencies' Right to Flight commission by James Bridle. Aerial view from the helikite showing the structures made by TDO; Courtesy Bold Tendencies.
Two current temporary exhibitions in London this summer are daring to situate new work in public—The City of London’s ‘Sculpture in the City’ program throughout the square mile, and Bold Tendencies’ solo commission of James Bridle's work The Right to Flight, at the top of a car park in Peckham, South London.
I first came across the City Corporation’s Public Arts Program through an encounter with one of Angus Fairhurst’s gorilla sculptures at the foot of the gherkin a couple of years ago. A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling (2000) is a large bronze sculpture of a sad gorilla clutching a huge dead fish. The gorilla’s empty hand was shiny, and I paused to imagine the hands that held his, polishing up the metal. Even in the middle of the financial district the work induced human empathy and a moment of pause. It asked to be interacted with.
This year the city is showing fourteen works in and around Great St Helens and 30 St Mary Axe. The stand-out works break away from the norms of public work (large metal sculptures); Cerith Wyn Evans’ neon sculpture in two parts Time here becomes space, Space here becomes time hangs from the roof of Leadenhall market. I saw it twice. In the early morning it glowed weakly above solemn looking commuters clutching coffees, and in the evening, more brightly, hovering in the hubbub of the post-work drinkers. Set against the 1881 roof structure its conversation to itself happily ignores the goings on below, reflecting more on the longer-term, on the space as it might once have been and will be in the future. However, the majority of the works on show do tend towards the large metal sculpture variety; Jim Lambie’s Secret Affair, a large silver keyhole, blends in to the London landscape already littered with many similar works.
Bridle’s project reworks the idea of public art from inside out. On top of the car park are a series of corrugated metal structures, from which a black helikite flies occasionally. The kite is fitted with data collecting technologies, and with the results, Bridle can experiment and make his artwork. When the balloon flies, it is very public, but its results get personalized—an email is sent to followers of the project updating them on new works being produced and other relevant actions across the globe, such as Greenpeace and the Electronic Frontier Foundation flying a large blimp over the NSA data collection center in Utah to make it visible. The Right to Flight is a balanced look at surveillance—the works being made deal with the aesthetic as much as the political. The kaleidoscopic Rorschroof video celebrates the aesthetic of the birds eye view, so ubiquitous now that we need to be reminded that it’s revolutionized how we place ourselves. Throughout the project there are a series of free talks with exciting titles like ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Killer Robots’.
Both public art commissions are to some extent about visibility, but Bridle’s project, through its use of technology, totally reworks the public/private conundrum. Through a diverse program that encompasses talks, presented research, a regular email and a large helikite in the skies above Peckham, Bridle’s project, rather than assuming a certain form of ‘public art’, seems to be actively deciding and reshaping what that might mean for a city mediated by technology and surveillance, where we are able to see more of and interact with space in greater ways than ever before.
(Image on top: Bold Tendencies' Right to Flight commission by James Bridle.The helikite flying above Peckham; Courtesy Bold Tendencies)