The transformative power of public art: Why Sky Arts has commissioned a new landmark for Britain

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 (Alex Cousins SWNS)
(Alex Cousins SWNS)

Liverpool’s Crosby Beach, where as an adolescent I spent much of my time, is now populated by Antony Gormley’s Another Place – 100 cast iron life-size figures that span three kilometres of beach and reach out into the dense grey-green turbulent waters where the Mersey Estuary hits the Irish Sea. In my teenage years it was sparsely visited but Gormley’s installation transformed it, more or less overnight, into a place with which local residents identify; which has instilled interest, pride and energy and has attracted people from around the globe.

Another Place is free and freely accessible and Liverpudlians have cheerfully decorated Gormley’s figures with caps, football strips, bikinis and the like, as acts of fondness and acceptance rather than defilement. Crosby Beach is a place where people congregate, converse and enjoy themselves. I’m fascinated and exhilarated by how these sculptures create a communion; of how they speak of human achievement and potential and of how they move the public intellectually, emotionally and sensually.

That’s why I’m so pleased to be part of the new Sky Arts TV series, Landmark, which invites artists across the country to compete for the chance to create a new national work of public art. Representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as the north, south and midlands of England, 18 artists created incredible new works in lockdown. The winner’s proposal is now fabricated and installed in Coventry, the 2021 UK City of Culture, but all the competitors demonstrated the ingenuity and vitality of sculpture-making in Britain.

Gormley’s Angel of the North (1998) is probably the UK’s best-known contemporary artwork in the public realm. It heralds a geographic and psychological gateway into Gateshead and Newcastle, immediately proclaiming an industrial legacy as well as conveying aspiration and spiritual force. A 2008 economic impact study reported the benefits the Angel brought to the region, citing its positive effect on regeneration, promotion, tourism and identity.

Clare Lilley (Simon Ridgway)
Clare Lilley (Simon Ridgway)

For a work of art to contribute to the development of civic life is no mean feat. In the wake of Black Lives Matter activism, we have seen how public statuary that embodies the divisive social and political beliefs of the past is no longer representative of our diverse and inclusive society; the debate over the removal of these artefacts is a crucial contribution to civic understanding.

There is rarely consensus over public art but there are some fundamental aspects for success. Most important is that the artist skilfully conveys an understanding of formal values – scale, volume, surface, and space. Without that, they’re unlikely to create something that stands up to scrutiny. It’s one reason that the Fourth Plinth commissions have been so successful. Trafalgar Square is a terrific piece of urban design and the plinth itself connects cohesively to its site, so the commissioned artist is able to work with a number of positive and unchangeable givens. Add to that the complex histories that are inferred by the site which can be mined by artists and you have a winner – as with Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010), or Katharina Fritsch’s giant blue cockerel entitled Hahn/Cock (2013). Both enlivened discussions of Britain’s maritime history and the debatable merits of colonial and other power structures.

These are temporary projects, which, like Art on the Underground, Sculpture in the City, Frieze Sculpture and various biennials, make moments of exhilarating exploration that are mercifully more fleet of foot than the permanent commissioning process. Then there’s the question of how a work connects with a community. If successful, these projects bind people in a profound way, as was the case for the former miners who collaborated with the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa on the development of his 20-metre-high Dream (2009) near St Helens on Merseyside. Both Gormley’s Angel and Plensa’s Dream can be seen from a distance, but get out of your car and walk to their bases and you’re almost guaranteed a stimulating conversation with a complete stranger, which for me is a mark of their success.

On a more human scale, Thomas J Price’s Reaching Out (2020) on London’s contemporary sculpture trail The Line (which runs between Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and The O2) is a 3-metre-high bronze representing a young Black woman, head slightly inclined to the everyday business of texting. A superb illustration of the ordinary made extraordinary, it’s an important work that speaks of representation and belonging. Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family (2014), depicts two sisters who are single mothers, one of whom is pregnant, and their two children. It, too, is a serious and relevant commentary on contemporary Britain.

Artist Hetain Patel (PR handout)
Artist Hetain Patel (PR handout)

Such works are often a point of reflection, and responding to the human need for contemplation is British-Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary’s sublime East Window (2008) in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. It subtly conflates Christian iconography with female reproduction, connoting ideas around motherhood and the forces of life. Accessibility in the public realm is important, but exploring depths of human thought and experience are foundation stones for meaningful art.

Permanent works in the public realm might, over time, be overlooked. Take Henry Moore’s rooftop Time-Life Screen (1952-3) atop New Bond Street’s Time and Life Building. It’s a delicious treat in Mayfair to look up to this choreographed succession of four stone forms, silhouetted against the sky. Both it and Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure (1963), on the side of the John Lewis building on Oxford Street, say much about hope and humanity by artists who worked from their lived experience of two world wars. Often, it is not until public artworks are threatened that people appreciate the contribution they make to daily life – like Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1986 mosaics for the Tottenham Court Road underground station in 2015, the removal of which elicited a fierce public response before careful conservation and reinstatement of most of the work two years later.

Working on Landmark has proved unexpectedly emotional. The artist Hetain Patel and I interviewed all 18 artists, who were embarking on creating an extraordinary range of sculptures, their enthusiasm, energy and ambition undiminished by the constraints demanded by a competition held under pandemic restrictions. This life-affirming journey continued through the judging, with guest judges and members of the public bringing considered insight. Landmark will offer a snapshot of creative industry and I hope highlights the need for our society and education system to support and encourage emerging artists to face the challenges of the public realm

The compulsion to create art and to share that creation with others is at least as old as the 40,000 year-old hand stencils on the walls of the Sulawesi caves in Indonesia. The exchange between artist and viewer, between public, uncontrollable space and private inner world is a fascinating arena. Art in the public realm can be transformative; it can slice through all the stuff around us and contribute something of real meaning, reaching out and beyond the everyday, joining disparate people and contributing to our united collective imagination.

Clare Lilley is director of programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and curator of Frieze Sculpture. Landmark starts on Sky Arts on Monday September 6. Sky Arts is now free to view

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