London In Six Sculptures
London has so many statues that no-one notices two-thirds of them. Putting up a public figure always courts controversy, which is why we ended up with the Princess Diana Drainage Ditch of Doom (so-called because children kept falling over in it). The design ‘aims to reflect Diana’s life’; it feels almost embarrassed to be there. Water flows from the highest point in two directions as it cascades and bubbles before meeting in a pool at the bottom. The water is constantly refreshed and drawn from London’s water table. You can splash about in it. It’s impossible to photograph adequately. It’s definitely not royal.
Modern approaches to public sculpture celebrate aspects of urban life. Unfortunately no-one has managed to dynamite Paul Day’s hideously kitsch St Pancras statue of snogging giants, or Maggi Hambling’s grotesque, bizarre take on Oscar Wilde, a man who was nothing if not aesthetically pleasing, here turned into a Medusa rising from its coffin with a lit fag. There’s nothing about Oscar here at all, partly because you’re meant to sit on the statue, which places him lower than you. I’d prefer to sit at the feet of a master.
Well-meaning but not much better is the somewhat lifeless and apologetic new statue of Millicent Fawcett, the British feminist, intellectual, political and union leader, writer and suffragist. Now at least there is a woman commemorated in Parliament Square, home to eleven statesmen. It was unveiled to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in Britain. She’s wearing tweed and carrying a sign. Compassion is here, although the Edith Cavell statue in St Martin’s Lane has more inspirational power.
Over on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, kept empty to allow for a rotating display of sculptures, we currently have Michael Rakowitz’s 10,000 used date syrup tin cans recreating the Lamassu. This winged bull and protective deity guarded the entrance to the Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul) from c700 BC until it was destroyed by Daesh in 2015. The new artwork is called ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’. It represents a powerful and relevant idea, that the destruction of art cannot remove the idea.
The good thing is that art continues to be controversial. I’m not overly impressed with Tracy Emin’s pink neon writing at St Pancras as art per se. It feels as if she scribbled it on a notepad and bunged it over to her workers before breakfast, but it’s very pretty, even though she has clearly nicked the typeface from Francis Ford Coppola’s logo for ‘One From The Heart’. But who wants station art to be forbidding and hard to interpret? Emin is a lightweight artist and the sentiment works well here.
Finally, there’s a type of new sculpture I dislike; Trompe-l’œil nonsense ‘conceived’ with a sponsor, basically functioning as a giant marketing ploy. Alex Chinneck (who doesn’t do small, or deep) has ‘teamed up’ with Vauxhall (ie they’re presumably paying for it) to create…er, an ad for Vauxhall to which the only response is ‘How did they stick it on?’
Antony Gormley’s ‘Quantum Cloud’ and Landseer’s magnificent lions still conjure London best for me, along with Gilbert’s Eros. And the worst? Paul Day’s Mills & Boon lovers (seen under Emin’s sign) are so bad I can’t bring myself to repost them here, and Anish Kapoor made a rare misstep with ‘ArcelorMittel Orbit’, the red tubular Olympic Park sculpture so disliked that it was turned into a children’s slide. The important thing is that we continue to see new art in the capital.