This is the first of an evolving series of posts recording my own ‘encounters’ with ‘public art’ around NewcastleGateshead.
Newcastle upon Tyne, 18 June 2012: Notes on public artworks that I passed as I moved between my various meetings and errands around Newcastle yesterday (18 June 2012).
Well, not actually an artwork – just a signpost to one: ‘The Blue Carpet’ by Thomas Heatherwick. This is I think the only public artwork in Newcastle with its own street direction sign. Interesting that this sign (on the walkway between Mea House and the City Library – one of my regular walking routes into town) is still in situ, as ‘The Blue Carpet’ is possibly the most contentious public artwork and public space in the City. Initially celebrated for its design ambition but since much maligned for its cost, materials and ongoing maintenance issues. I wonder whether ‘The Blue Carpet’ is mentioned at all in the big new Heatherwick Studio retrospective currently showing at the V&A (until 30 September 2012).
On my way to the parcel office behind the station I walked past ‘The Shopping Trolleys’ located outside the Arts Council England office in Central Square where I used to work. Off-hand I can’t remember the official ‘title’ of this work (its related to DNA code) but I remember the general mood of dismay among Central Square staff (Arts Council and others) when this work suddenly appeared here, replacing the more acceptably sculptural (?) Paolozzi ‘Vulcan’ that used to stand in this spot.
My usual route walking up towards the Bigg Market takes me past the ‘Stephenson Monument’ which has recently emerged from a screen of scaffolding and is now cleaned and restored. The triangular road island where the monument is sited is also now filled with a colourful array of City Council planters, creating a bit of screen and distraction from the traffic. It’s a warm sunny day and a small group of women with wheelie cases are using the plinth as a place for a sit down, perhaps on their way to or from Central Station.
Right in the centre of town the area around ‘Grey’s Monument’ is busy with people eating sandwiches and takeaways from the food stands and watching the BBC news on the big video screen, installed here as part of NE1‘s summer ‘Monument Live’ season. Meanwhile around the corner a giant photo of the ‘Angel of the North’ installed at the side of the Tourist Information Centre dominates the entrance to the ornate Central Arcade.
My final two artworks for today are glimpsed through the window of my bus home as it slowly negotiates its way through the traffic lanes around the Civic Centre. First, ‘Winged Victory’ on her column (the South African War Memorial, and also the site of the notorious ‘Lego Men’, now removed and allegedly auctioned off on E-bay). And then as the bus swings round the corner, Nico Widerberg’s ‘Pillar Man’ framed against the white wall of the Northumbria University Gallery.
I’ve been reading a variety of mentions recently of ‘What’s That Thing?’, a new report from art critic and journalist Igor Toronyi-Lalic on the current ‘state’ of public art in Britian, yet haven’t so far managed to track down the full text. The promotional article published in The Daily Telegraph (10 May 2012) is pretty strong stuff (with plenty of focus on the profligacy of public spending on public art) and, with the further extract published by The Arts Desk (4 June 2012), offers a flavour of the probable blasting to come..
Apart from the admission of the success of art works such as NewcastleGateshead’s own ‘Angel of the North’ and Liverpool’s ‘Turning the Place Over’ the report extract presents contemporary public art as very much between a rock and a hard place – disliked by (an enraged) public and largely shunned by the art world. There’s not a lot new in this analysis, but its a healthy reminder, if one was needed, of the public and media controversy that has always gathered around public art commissioning. While I certainly agree that few public artworks match up to the quality of Richard Wilson’s hypnotic ‘Turning the Place Over’ (sadly now decommissioned), I’m not sure here how Toronyi-Lalic’s call for a return to 19C style subscription based commissioning (crowdsourcing perhaps?) as opposed to public sector-funded projects, will improve the artistic quality and ambition of public art practice or actually ensure a more positive audience engagement. But I look forward to reading more on this research when the full report does become available.
It’s been really interesting (and encouraging) for me to see that the new issue of the US based journal Public Art Dialogue (Vol.2. Issue 1, 2012) is dedicated to the theme of ‘Audience Response’, one of the research areas that I am focusing on in my own work here in NewcastleGateshead. In this post, I make some initial observations on two of the articles contained here, expecting to return for a closer read of these texts and the whole issue as part of my formal ‘Public art and audience’ literature review.
Among the different perspectives gathered in this issue, Kate MacNeill’s article ‘Narratives of Public Art: Yellow Peril, Vault and a Large Yellow Object’ was a particularly informative and engaging read. Focusing on a 1980’s sculptural commission for the City of Melbourne, MacNeill combines tales of political controversy with a new ‘human-object’ centred approach (drawn from ‘material culture’ studies) to trace the 20 year agency and mutation of ‘Vault’ from unique ‘artwork’, to ‘discursive object’, to physical play-thing/functional structure and back to ‘artwork’ status again. A current state, which in MacNeill’s words seems more emptied out than celebratory: “No longer climbed upon, rarely sheltered under except perhaps on a rainy day by those making their way from the gallery to the Victorian College of the Arts, the large yellow object is acknowledged as an artwork and defined by its sheer uselessness.” (p.29).
This object-oriented view is further explored in Quentin Stevens’ well illustrated article ‘Visitor Responses at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial: Contrary to Conventions, Expectations and Rules’. In his case study, based on extensive first hand observation of the memorial, Stevens offers an analysis of “the interpretive, emotional, and bodily aspects” (p.37) of the work’s reception. In the article he describes four key factors that shape audience experiences of this work: the architect’s original vision which deliberately intended to elicit a bodily (rather than a contemplative) audience response; the specific physical and ‘minimalist’ (block/grid) form of the work; the publicly displayed rules for use of the site; and the size and presence of the audience itself as an observer/regulator of the site and of others’ interactions with it. Having set out his observations and analysis Steven’s concludes by suggesting that “these parameters might also prove useful for studying, predicting, and shaping the reception of public artworks generally, with emphasis differing according to the materiality, placement, and meanings of any given work, as well as the anticipated size and composition of its audience, and how their behaviour is managed.” (p.54.) An analytical structure that I may well pick up on in planning and carrying out my own observational case studies.
This is a slideshow version of a presentation I gave last week at the ICCHS Postgraduate Research Conference and at the Newcastle University Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences 1st Year RPG Conference (10 May 2012). I’m including it here as a useful (and visual) summary of my now redrafted research question and project aims and as an indication of some of my proposed data collection methods. These will inevitably be expanded upon, tested and refined further over the next few months as I enter the first stages of formal literature review(s) and data gathering.
Abstract: Over the last thirty years NewcastleGateshead has established an international reputation for public art commissioning. While ambitious claims continue to be made about the societal and environmental impact of public art, particularly in terms of regeneration and placemaking agendas, what we might call the ‘aesthetic encounter’ between audiences and public artworks is often missing from the discussion. As Harriet Senie noted in her work in New York City the audience for public art remains largely “an imaginary construct”. Using NewcastleGateshead as a case study my research project aims to go some way to fill this gap, taking a primarily qualitative approach to investigate audience engagement with contemporary public art in the city, both with individual artworks and through the conceptual and interpretational framework of the wider public art ‘collection’. This presentation will outline some of the key questions that I aim to address through this project and introduce a discussion on the mix of appropriate investigative methods that might be employed within the research.