My Favourite London Art Installations


The challenge of filling the Tate Modern’s vast turbine hall has only been met with complete success a couple of times. many of the installations have looked lost in the space. Kara Walker’s giant ceramic fountain fits well inside the hall, but its meaning – something to do with slavery – is obscure and it’s simply not very good. The point would have been better made if it didn’t look like a child’s plasticine model writ large.

So which big installations really worked? For me, apart from works by Christian Marclay, the fabulous cloud you walked through in a giant glass box and the leasing of Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in one hour slots to any Londoner, there was the gigantic Weather Project sun by Olafur Eliasson that turned the hall into a pagan celebration and was instantly adored by visitors.

The other instant hit was the filling of the Tower of London’s moat with millions of blood-red ceramic poppies, a moving tribute to lost lives called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. Each poppy was sold off after to raise money for veterans. Finding places in the chaotic, crowded city for large public artworks is tricky, so artists have to be inventive.

I also like the rain storm you couldn’t get soaked in by Random International at Barbican. This room was filled with tiny sensors that kept you dry wherever you walked so that you emerged without a drop of water on you. It makes sense that in a city of damp and mist we celebrate the weather that creates London’s unique light, which is drained of bright colouring, producing muted, atmospheric landscapes.

We like to engage with and participate in art more than we ever used to. Perhaps populism has in this case moved us away from academic abstract art. The worst example I can think of was at the Camden art gallery, and consisted of a forty foot-long wooden beam with a piece of nylon rope tied around one end. It came accompanied with pages of pseudo-historical justification about what it was trying to say. Camden was also responsible for the rash of hideous sculptures dotting its parks, all part of the same grand commission, which I can only assume was part of a money laundering operation. This one became known locally as the ‘Land Fart’. Oddly, it has never been properly vandalised.



19 comments on “My Favourite London Art Installations”

  1. Brooke says:

    Agree–K. Walker’s work that I’ve seen is uniformly poor art; but she has a good publicist.
    Another example of bad public art: this summer, a piece called “Canopy;” bright orange plastic rings, like those that hold soft drink packs together, strung across beautiful old trees that line our museum row (internationally recognized museums interspersed with greenery and water spaces). Signage proudly announced that Canopy was paid for by the City!

    On the other hand, Blood Swept worked on many levels…wonderful to see if only through photographs.

  2. Christine says:

    Did you buy a poppy?

  3. eggsy says:

    Parts of Blood Swept… went on tour for us provincials to benefit from. We saw the cascade transplanted to Caernarfon Castle. Mother was very impressed.
    It inspired a grassroots sort of equivalent, with a number of churches exhibiting similar cascade of a carpet of knitted poppies, made by local groups. Like the other successful artworks indicated by Mr Fowler, it really struck a chord with the public.
    Whereas the failures, and I’m sure we’ve all got examples to add to those of Chris and Brooke’s, seem to be the artist just imposing themselves on the environment. Nothing more to be said than a great (and expensive) “I woz ‘ere”.
    A degree of playfulness seems to be what the public like, if I can use that term for the visual metaphor in something as sombre as Blood Swept…

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    Is it beautiful? Does it entertain or excite thought? Or does it merely fill a piece of space-time that might have been better used?

  5. Jo W says:

    I bought a poppy.

  6. Jan says:

    Are you sure that last picture is an art installation? Could be rampant fungal growth ……

    Get them to send the rainstorm that doesn’t get you wet on tour. I have been bloody soaked down here for last couple of days.

  7. Brooke says:

    Good questions, Peter T. Unfortunately the only questions that matter are: who do you know on the (Arts) Council and how much money is there?

  8. Rachel Green says:

    My partner thinks public sculptures are only ‘Art’ if kids can climb on it.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Peter and Rachel are both right, although the eagles on the Harding memorial in Stanley Park(why would we want to memorialise that president?) while great to climb on and pretend to fly are of dubious artistic value. There’s a thing called “Spring” in downtown Vancouver and that is what it is, a gigantic red metal coil just sitting there. In Walgerode, Germany, there’s a bench made as if from a pair of partially folded spectacles. I loved it and laughed every time I walked past. (“a degree of playfulness”) There was a teeter totter shaped like a dachshund on another street and that was actually intended to have kids play with it.

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    In Urmston there were several brown, fibre glass seals. They made wonderful slides & climbing frames, the different sizes for different age kids, sadly after decades of use they finally wore out from use.

    The Land Fart looks like it could be fun to climb.

    There is a giant sculpture of a retro Vimto bottle and surrounded by giant fruits in Manchester, it’s wood and it’s fun. It was renovated a few years back, a one point the rain has taken its toll. Sadly the company moved to Newton-le-Willows about half was between Manchester and Liverpool, about 20 miles from each.


  11. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – I’ve seen it on a couple of Martin Zero’s videos – I think it’s bloody brilliant.

  12. Antonia Dailly says:

    Sheffield has some brilliant public art in the form of Journeys to Hidden Places, which manages to be both inclusive and thought provoking. Curiously it was funded by Sheffield City Council in conjunction with the Arts Council. Perhaps good art goes beyond the sources of funding?

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Some of the most amusing art is in the form of giant things. We have an enormous sparrow near the athletes’ village for the 2010 Olympics and an orca that appears to be made from giant lego pieces. There’s a giant raindrop near the prow of Canada Place and a group of laughing Chinese men who have been dressed in jerseys and with which everyone wants to take a picture. (Grammar hits me when I’m on this site.)

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    They are good Ian, Hopwood Hall is sad and wonderful, since the video they have been doing some work on it supposedly from 2018. How the house was built and grew around a central hall is fascinating.


  15. Ian Luck says:

    We have a superb statue of Cardinal Wolsey in town, sitting in his seat, with a cat by his side. It’s full of detail – but here’s the thing – it’s on a road leading out of town, the reason being, that it’s about thirty feet from his birthplace. He’s not seen by enough people, and should be nearer the centre. The fun thing about him, though, is that his right hand is raised, and with open fingers, and several times, when it has been raining, someone has put an umbrella in that hand. I pass him every day, to and from work, and usually, as I ride home in the morning, I find myself saying:
    “Morning, Tom.” Is that odd at all?

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Doesn’t everyone talk to statues?

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    If it is then me saying, ‘Hello Vicky.’ to Queen Victoria’s statue in Piccadilly Gardens. although I don’t tend to let onto Robert Peel, but then he does have a permanent groupie to talk to.


  18. Wayne Mook says:

    is as well, is the missing bit of a sentence above.



  19. Helen Martin says:

    I wish we had more statues here because I rarely see one to talk to: Lord Stanley to wave to at the entrance to Stanley Park and Terry Fox under his arch and the angel carrying the WWI soldier outside the CPR station, Harry Jerome running in the above Park and the Four Minute Mile statue outside Empire Stadium (but they’re too concentrated on their race to listen).

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