Wednesday, 29 July 2009

the perilous life of a public artwork…

for the 21 days of the recent manchester festival, two specific art commissions have loomed ever larger in my minds eye; two visions of manchester, one bold and exuberant, bursting with civic pride and ambition at the dawn of the millennium, the other modest and self effacing, delicate and already overwhelmed by the paradox of its concrete plinth, both prison and home. two of the city’s most prominent works of art whose respective rise and fall have dominated not just the news but my personal horizon; every where i turn from dawn til dusk, there they are.

one waxing, the other waning, the emerging newborn might even appear to be feeding off the rotting cadaver of its beleaguered older sister. each morning my kitchen window has borne witness to the slow torture that is the daily dismantling of the b of the bang, whilst at work my window overlooks the rapid installation of the city’s newest commission - flailing trees, created for the manchester international festival, crept up virtually unannounced, peeping shyly from behind its makeshift fencing in st peter’s square nervously awaiting its unveiling.

and i confess i don’t quite know how to handle the birth of this young upstart competing for my affections whilst i’m still mourning the cruel demise of my old friend out in the suburbs. the b of the bang has been a constant companion at my window ever since it burst extravagantly on to the skyline four years ago, twinkling and winking at me cheerily in the moonlight as i tidy away the dishes or glinting gaudily at first light as i make my morning cuppa, its starburst of huge metal prongs never failing to capture my gaze, my own private artwork, a reliable friend in an ever changing city.

the story of the b of the bang is a typical mancunian cocktail of ambition, swagger and self belief with a generous dash of provincial inferiority complex thrown in for good measure; a heady cocktail that has always lent the city a palpable air of ‘fur coat and no knickers’ but has spiralled out of control since the 96 bomb. it’s a story that has taken our desire to join the global ‘big league’ of capital cities to quite absurd proportions. the commonwealth games, the failed olympics bid, the mega casino debacle, the £600 million super-campus race, the spinningfields business district, it has to be the biggest, the tallest, the glitziest, the loudest. no room here for the graceful charms of an casually elegant city – no it has to be nothing less than dubai, singapore, las vegas. yet in reality this exhausting spiral of self aggrandisement merely reeks of desperation, of a brash provincial town punching well above its weight and falling flat on its jutting chin.

the contrast between this sorry tale on the edge of the city, of a promotional tool turned genuine icon and the newly emerging highlight of the manchester festival couldn’t be greater if it tried. one was loud, brash and technologically advanced, the other small scale, modest and technically simple. one needed an army of welders, riggers, engineers and architects to create and install, the other required nothing more complicated than an artist, a couple of tree surgeons and a concrete mixer. one was a bold proclamation of the city’s civic and global ambitions, the other more a sobering reflection on waste, greed and environmental catastrophe.

contemporary practice and public art in particular are invariably imbued with layers of meaning beyond those envisaged by their corporate commissioners. in time they inevitably become unwitting symbols of their day with a whole world of difference between the original message and the ones subsequently ascribed to posterity.

these 2 installations are no exception, the poor old b of the bang an unwitting metaphor of an unprecedented era of civic hubris, corporate greed and the spectacularisation of the public domain, its current death throes the last gasp of over a decade of puff and swagger, an uncomfortable window on to our collective selves and our unsustainable aspirations. so as i gaze at the delicate construction of our newest piece of public commissioning, my hope is that it bears witness to our belated growing up, to the rise of a new era for the city – one of reflection and purposeful contemplation, where restraint and chic restoration carries more weight than the quick fix of demolition and the continual reinvention we have grown used to.

here’s the press release from mif~

Renowned artist and political activist Gustav Metzger has joined forces with the Manchester International Festival to create Flailing Trees, a sculpture to be situated in the Manchester Peace Garden. As the trees dry out, the sculpture will transform - making Flailing Trees a perfect metaphor for what Metzger sees as the urgent need for debate about the increasing brutalization of the world. Metzger says: "When we now reflect on nature, it is with considerable doubt and uncertainty. A good deal of fear is involved. We constantly ask: what will happen next?" Born in Germany, Metzger became stateless in 1948. His work and lectures are renowned for pushing boundaries of the avant-garde, and he is widely considered to have had one of the most uncompromising artistic careers of the century. The sculpture will move to the Whitworth Gallery after the festival.

the choice of Metzger is in itself interesting and promising– a leading exponent of the 60’s Auto-destructive art movement, he made work by spraying acid onto sheets of nylon as a protest against nuclear weapons, a procedure that produced rapidly changing shapes before the nylon was all consumed, so the work was simultaneously auto-creative and auto-destructive. he was also involved in the Destruction in Art Symposium in London and later in New York, which was accompanied by the public demonstration of Auto-destructive art including the burning of Skoob Towers by John Latham - towers of books (skoob is books in reverse) to demonstrate directly his view that Western culture was burned out. hardly an orthodox view for the usually hard headed Manchester city council one would think and yet this latest artwork is directly related to the Manchester Report, commissioned especially for the festival, which -

plans to recommend and communicate a series of innovative solutions to combat the environmental crisis, prior to the UN Climate Change Conference scheduled to take place in November.

if contemporary art practice makes work that both challenges and reflects on pertinent issues of the day, then the art it creates is also a social document, a record if our times. our task as self appointed ‘archaeologists of the contemporary’ is to recognise, examine and disseminate this document, this record, lest it disappear without trace.

and so my plea to the city is to articulate this burgeoning maturity by leaving the bloody, wounded stump of heatherwick’s truly iconic sculpture for all to see, its flawed beauty a constant reminder of our collective conceit, our foolish pomposity, rather than shuffled off to some giant aircraft hanger, raiders of the lost ark-style.

and there on the horizon it could simply linger, a beacon to follies past, a warning for the future and a modern day 'ruin', a more appropriate monument to the spirit of manchester than was ever envisioned in its commissioning.

metzger himself would surely approve…


The Shrieking Violet said...

I wrote a post about B of the Bang just before you did, yet yours says it so much better! It's in my fanzine too which is a paper version of my blog (plus more contributers in theory! I've only made 30 but I'm putting them in various places around Manchester. I dropped some off in the Cornerhouse bookshop this afternoon.)

I got into an argument about B of the Bang yesterday afternoon when I was finishing them off in the Whitworth Art Gallery in lulls in our drumming workshop. A lady joined in the workshop who absolutely hates B of the Bang because it's dangerous and she kept on saying that the money should have been spent on houses and actually improving the area.

Then I got into another debate about public art and how Chicago is probably the most beautiful city I have ever visited and everywhere there are giant sculptures by Miro/ Picasso/ Alexander Calder/ Jaume Piensa, and the valid question was raised about who actually funded them - the council or philanthropic donations.

Bluestocking said...

hi sv,

typically i was grappling with this little post for about 3 weeks, so limited are my composing skills! and i did read you own post on it was was heartened and encouraged to finsinh my tiny thank you and glad to join the ranks of its supporters!

good luck with the zine - i hope there will still be copies upon my return. your blog will translate perfectly to printed form and reach more people - hoorah for you...

its a shame when debates about public art divert into spending on housing and the like because its something of a red herring - the cancellation of artworks would never increase propertionally the national or local spend on housing, however desperately needed...

The Shrieking Violet said...

My post on B of the Bang had actually been several months in the making! I didn't know what angle to approach it from...

I am in the process of creating a PDF version of my zine.

Ps, I would love it if you would consider contributing something to a future issue! I have wanted to ask ever since I purchased Belle Vue last year, which was a big inspiration!