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Birmingham’s Public Art – we don’t need King Kong to thrash Manchester

Birmingham’s Public Art – we don’t need King Kong to thrash Manchester

🕔04.Apr 2016

Clearly, The Chamberlain Files is far too cerebral a production to descend to playing April Fools’ hoaxes on its readers. Some sober details of GBSLEP board changes were our breakfast fare last Friday (this is how we get our kicks here, Ed).

Not so The Birmingham Mail, whose website newsletter splashed the scoop that, thanks partly to some Midlands Engine funding, a greatly enlarged version of the already giant 1970s King Kong sculpture is to return to the city, sited either in Centenary Square or atop the Rotunda.

It was a good spoof, picking up on a real story that features periodically in the local news and a campaign with its own ‘Bring Back Brummie KONG’ Facebook page.  A smidgeon less OTT embroidery, and it might just have been plausible.

Understandably, the Mail glossed over the actual background to the KK story, so I thought I’d take advantage of this post to fill in some details and provide some contemporary context.

As it happens, the background is recounted and photographically illustrated in a key section of a current exhibition at London’s Somerset House, curated by Historic England and entitled Out There – Our Post-War Public Art.

It tells a mixed story, but mostly one of a minority of pioneering individuals and institutions battling and achieving small victories against the tides of political, official and public indifference.

One particularly sad episode was the ambitious 1972 Peter Stuyvesant Foundation City Sculpture project (p.5).  Eight cities were loaned sculptures, created for specific streetscape locations by emerging artists, to display for six months with an option to buy and permanently retain.

In keeping with the cultural climate of the time, many of the 16 pieces were mocked, some physically attacked, one completely destroyed, and just one was retained in situ by the chosen council.

Birmingham’s two – Robert Carruthers’ Japanese Shinto gate construction in Colmore Circus and Nicholas Monro’s genuinely popular 18-foot fibreglass King Kong in Manzoni Gardens in the Bull Ring – were both lost to the city, as later were the four massive fibreglass bull sculptures that once adorned the shopping centre itself.

King Kong was sold and resold, painted and repainted (including in tartan) and is now in retirement in Cumbria. Facebook campaigns and Mail scoops notwithstanding, we’re unlikely to see him back any time soon.

Which begs the question: If the Stuyvesant project had happened today, would KK have been allowed to escape oop north quite so easily?

I’d guess not. Because my impression is that Birmingham today – its citizens, council and even its potentially sculpture-commissioning business community – takes a very different, more positive, and more open-minded view of public art than it did back then.

Which may sound a questionable claim in the very week in which only 13 years ago some sad, misguided youth and his box of matches caused Raymond Mason’s iconic Centenary Square sculpture, ‘Forward’, to burst irreparably into flames.

Forward’s life was controversial and brief, but it was a monumental and quality piece of public art, to which the Birmingham-born artist had devoted three years of his own life: a nearly bus-length panorama of the city’s industrial, scientific, political, educational and artistic history.

In both scale and concept, it fitted and enhanced its public space; it stimulated interest, and challenged, without utterly bewildering, public perceptions.

However, though long departed from Centenary Square, Forward a little oddly lives on in the Wikipedia List of Public Art in Birmingham. As indeed does its exact contemporary, Tom Lomax’s Spirit of Enterprise water sculpture with its three heads and bronze dishes representing commerce, industry and enterprise, which disappeared into storage with the building of the new library.

This could have proved problematic, since one anticipated purpose of this post was to show conclusively that, though Birmingham suffers sometimes in comparisons with the supposed wonders and virtues of Manchester, it takes a considerably more enlightened and progressive view of the value of public art.

Never dreaming the Wiki guys would allow the inclusion of non-public and even non-existing pieces, I thought I’d use their apparently authoritative and comparable public art lists to see how the two cities, at least in the quantity of their displayed public sculpture, match up.

But suppose that, boosted by who knows how many no longer extant works, the numbers proved close? Complete false alarm – they weren’t even in the same manor.

The City of Manchester lists 25, most of them ancient, unimaginative memorial statues of worthy Victorian old men plus the Windsor Widow herself.

Almost needless to say, non-mythical women not born to be Queen are as conspicuous by their absence in Manchester as they were – prior to Gillian Wearing’s exhilarating Real Birmingham Family – here.

Most recent commission in Wiki’s Manchester list is that city’s equivalent of ForwardThomas Heatherwick’s short-lived but memorable B of the Bang. Designed to commemorate the 2002 Commonwealth Games, it was a massively big and expensive, structurally dubious explosion of 180 pointy steel spikes, designed to represent the ‘Bang’ of the pistol starting a Linford Christie sprint.

Design, costing, manufacture, delivery, assembly: almost everything that could go wrong did – earning it the inevitable nickname ‘G of the Bang’. From unveiling to dismantling and partial disposal, it lasted just four years.

But, content aside, how does the City of Manchester’s list of 25 theoretically publicly accessible artworks – or 43 including the other nine Greater Manchester boroughs – compare with Birmingham’s collection?

Well, Wikipedia lists 90 in the Central City/Ladywood area alone, and roughly the same number across the rest of the city – approaching 200 in all, which I reckon, without a hint of triumphalism, amounts to a thrashing.

But numbers aren’t all. Even the most culturally blinkered visitor would surely sense that Birmingham today is a city with a fair bit of public art around – and, moreover, modern art.

Like Manchester, we rightly commemorate the giants of our city’s and nation’s history. But there’s so very much else that, certainly artistically, is more interesting.

Yes, the famous ones – Antony Gormley’s Iron: Man, Dhruva Mistry’s sphinxes and River sculpture, Bruce Williams’ Tony Hancock, even Laurence Broderick’s Bullring bull, and now, of course, Wearing’s Real Birmingham Family in Centenary Square.

Even more fascinating, though, are the less celebrated: like Vincent Woropay’s Wattilisk – James Watt, but as a granite totem pole (QE Law Courts); Tawny Gray’s Custard House sculptures, The Green Man and Deluge; John Bridgeman’s Mother and Baby (Women’s Hospital); and, worth their own sculpture trail, the numerous works of Anuradha Patel, including the 24-hour Route ramp railings linking the Bull Ring and Moor Street.

In addition to Wearing, Gray and Patel being women, a pleasing feature reflected in this mini-selection is that at least a dozen of the listed artworks in central Birmingham alone postdate Manchester’s most recent exhibited commission, B of the Bang.

Obviously, not all public art is commissioned by public bodies, let alone by the City Council. But the regular appearance of striking new works is surely one box an aspiring “world-class city of culture and artistic excellence” should be ticking – as Birmingham nowadays seems to recognise.

It’s regrettable that two of the three sculptures illustrating the web pages of its Public Art Strategy 2015-19 are weary statues of Victoria and Edward VII. But, considering UK cities’ overall post-war public art record, the existence of a strategy is in itself cause for celebration.

Pic: Birmingham Mail.

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