Boulders to Baselitz: sculpture in London
READERS FAMILIAR WITH our annual sculpture issue each November will know that this Editorial page has been devoted, for several consecutive years, to public sculpture, chiefly in London. It has excoriated several of the most distasteful blots on the urban landscape – from individual statues (for example the Queen Mother in the Mall and Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square) to war memorials (most recently the Bomber Command memorial in the pile-up of such works at Hyde Park Corner) and purposeless objects put up by, in particular, Westminster City Council, including the horse’s head at Marble Arch. We have also drawn attention to the proposed sale by Tower Hamlets of one of the finest of the city’s open-air sculptures, Henry Moore’s Draped seated woman. In spite of bad publicity and challenges to its legal ownership, the Council is still committed to selling the work ‘at the earliest opportunity’.1
Although our Editorials have been enthusiastically endorsed privately, it is hard to know if they have had the slightest effect in the public sphere. All we can observe is that the last twelve months have been mercifully quiet, with relatively little new sculpture in London’s streets, parks and squares. There have been one or two exceptions – a huge upside-down figure in bronze called Alien has landed on its head in Grosvenor Gardens, Victoria, not in the least in keeping with the nearby equestrian statue of Marshal Foch or even with the more recent lioness and antelope, inappropriate though they are in this small, domesticated public garden.
Two further exceptions are, however, welcome ones. Rock on top of another rock by Fischli and Weiss, placed in Kensington Gardens, is just as the title says; the two boulders have an almost childish, precarious charm. The other exception is the current commission for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, arrestingly fulfilled by the German artist Katharina Fritsch. It is a larger-than-life, resin and fibreglass blue cockerel, proudly standing towards the front of the plinth and facing Whitehall, its plume of tail feathers ruffled towards the Director’s office in the National Gallery (Fig.I). It is amusing but by no means trivial. If, at first sighting, it has an aura of being, say, a 3D logo for a fast-food chain, this is soon dispelled. It is well scaled and rather dignified, quite cock-of-the-walk even among the heroic figures of the Square where it provides by far the brightest note of colour.
Hahn/Cock will remain in place until early 2015 and plans are already advanced for its successor. A display of proposals by six shortlisted artists is on view in the Crypt of nearby St Martin-in-the-Fields (to 17th November). It is a disappointing group of works, ranging from a silly joke by David Shrigley to a replica of an anthropomorphic stone outcrop in Yorkshire by Marcus Coates. But Mark Leckey’s collage of elements taken from other sculptures in the Square might work well if judiciously scaled.
The fourth plinth commissions were instigated fourteen years ago and have included memorable works by, among others, Rachel Whiteread, Marc Quinn and Bill Woodrow. But has the series had its day? Certainly the scheme has raised public perception of contemporary sculpture but it may even have had an adverse effect in encouraging inferior works to be placed elsewhere in the capital. For any one person who likes a particular work on the fourth plinth there will be thousands more who prefer the horse’s head at Marble Arch.
A further scheme that has brought several good and entertaining works to public notice is ‘Sculpture in the City’, now in its third year. The City of London Corporation has collaborated with firms and businesses, artists and galleries, to place sculptures within the Square Mile, mostly concentrated in St Mary Axe and Undershaft. By no means all are site-specific commissions but they are works selected with a fine degree of pertinence – a version of Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture is placed outside 99 Bishopsgate, the site of the devastating IRA bomb of twenty years ago. A 1994 work by Richard Wentworth has several mundane, red kitchen chairs suspended at different angles just below the top of the Hiscox building at 1 Great St Helen’s, as though committing suicide in the wake of another financial crisis. Works by, among others, Shirazeh Houshiary, Antony Gormley, Keith Coventry and Jake and Dinos Chapman are all on view until May next year in this admirable and carefully curated display.
One sculpture placed outdoors in London this summer, for a relatively fleeting appearance, was Georg Baselitz’s Untitled (2013), shown in the garden of the courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It consists of three large female figures, arms interlinked, originally carved in wood and then cast in bronze with a coal-black patination. The image was inspired by the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the ‘League of German Girls’ of the Hitler Youth Movement, young members of which Baselitz had witnessed as they paraded in the village where he grew up. The sculpture’s title is in fact Gruppe BDM but unaccountably this was found objectionable for its V. & A. showing. Indeed the publicity from the Museum made no mention of the BDM, attributing Baselitz’s inspiration to ‘village beauties’ and Canova’s Three Graces, which was not the case.2 Surely the work should have been left unsanitised or not borrowed at all? Attention to the potential of ‘public’ sculpture to shock or dismay was here taken a step too far.
1 Tower Hamlets council spokesperson to The Burlington Magazine, 10th October 2013: ‘The council is committed to selling the Henry Moore sculpture, Draped Seated Woman, at the earliest opportunity’.
2 See T. Grey: ‘Georg Baselitz’s black period’, Financial Times (11th October 2013).