Challenge: Public Contemporary Art
Lunch breaks taken: 2/5
I have fallen back in love with lunch breaks! Not that I was ever out of love with them, but the past couple of months of busy-ness and subsequently no midday time away from my desk meant that I had gotten used to being a bit lazy. There’s definitely a cosy satisfaction to spending all day at your desk, even though you know it makes you feel drained and heavy by the end of the day. I guess it’s a bit like staying in your pyjamas all weekend: you feel slightly gross, but at the same time self-indulgent.
Because of this, it took me a few weeks to shake off the sluggishness and motivate myself to actually get away from my desk. I undertook the last couple of challenges with a slightly lacklustre approach, not really engaging with them with as much enthusiasm as I probably would have done a few months ago. All that is now behind me though, thanks to the wonderful world of contemporary art.
The City of London have a brilliant public art programme called ‘Sculpture in the City’. Now in its sixth year, a variety of sculptural artworks are placed in around 20 different locations in the square mile. As well as an online map showing the location of each sculpture, you can download the SMARTIFY app, which provides extra commentary on each piece, so that you have a sort of audio guide while you are walking round.
At around a 15 minute walk away from my office, I knew there was no way I’d be able to see all 19 sculptures, so I limited myself to just four – two a day for two days.
On Thursday, I set out to see ‘Fire Walker’ by William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx (2009), purely because it was the closest one to me and I was nervous about time. Based on an earlier, larger original, the sculpture was produced in response to a commission by the City of Johannesburg in 2010. It depicts the silhouette of a female street vendor carrying a burning brazier on her head. The usually immigrant, homeless ‘fire walkers’ sell pieces of coal to other market vendors and are among the most impoverished of the city’s urban labourers. Approaching the sculpture, all you can see is a fragmented metal structure that looks completely nonsensical until you actually stand directly in front of it, at which point the pieces all come together perfectly to form the shape of a woman. As you move away the sculpture dissolves again into dislocated, abstract shards, challenging the notion of monumental public sculpture and also echoing the precarious nature of the fire walkers’ lives.
I had read the description of the sculpture online before I went to see it, and liked the parity between the contemporary Johannesburg street vendor and the London street ‘criers’ of the 17th and 18th centuries – in the grand scheme of things, not all that long ago. Often romanticised in prints of the time, the lives of the London criers were usually incredibly tough and impoverished, each vendor living hand to mouth depending on how successful they were at peddling their wares.
However, the actual experience of viewing the sculpture was quite stressful. Positioned on the corner of two very busy roads, I had to dodge city workers rushing to cross the street before the traffic lights changed and, in general, stopping to contemplate art at the centre of London in the middle of a fast-paced working day just felt a little clichéd. I moved on fairly quickly, once I’d taken a photo, somehow missed the next sculpture (‘Cadenetas’ by Lizi Sánchez, 2016) and soon saw ‘SUNRISE. east. July’ / ‘SUNRISE. east. October’ by Ugo Rondinone (2005) on the horizon (no pun intended).
In all honesty, this one didn’t particularly grab me either. Part of a series of twelve giant masks – each named for a month of the year – the massive bronze forms of ‘July’ and ‘October’, covered in a silver patina, caught my eye from far off. As I approached, though, nothing really changed – they were still giant, silver shapes. As described in the online guide, “set on top of concrete plinths, the globular, elongated heads express distinct moods – variously smiling, menacing and doleful – and pick up on Rondinone’s recurring motif, the mask. The sculptures also resemble primordial totems, in particular the gigantic stone heads of Easter Island; and their mythic titles enhance this subtext of archaic pagan ritual. At the same time, the works are playfully anthropomorphic – the expressions taking on a cartoonish air. Their finger-pitted surfaces emphasise their human crafting – reminding us of the gradual process of clay modelling out of which they arose.”
Maybe I’m a philistine, but it all just felt a bit obvious or as though there’d been a checklist about what contemporary art should look at (ancient civilisation vs. modern culture; human craft vs. machine age; the sublime vs. the ridiculous). It didn’t really move me, I think because the sculptures felt so slapdash and uncared for, when they were referencing something (totems) that is traditionally of such extreme significance and importance. Back to work.
The next day I decided to be more selective in what I decided to go and look at. I saw that there was a sculpture called ‘Laura’ just beneath the Gherkin… little more motivation needed. Worried about time (it was a little bit further away than desired at almost a 20 minute walk from my office), I googled a ‘quick route’ to my usual one which sticks to the main roads. Obviously I got lost, but all for a good reason, as I ended up passing ‘Idee di pietra – 1373 Kg di luce’ by Giuseppe Penone (2010).
Standing at over nine metres tall, a leafless bronze tree, the bark painted to look convincingly real, rises up between the glass walls of the surrounding offices, bearing in its branches five enormous rocks. The elevated position of these heavy boulders, so high up that there is no ‘human’ way they could have got there, made me think of those pictures of cars in trees, lifted there during floods and left to rust. I imagined that I was walking through the ruined city of London, that had been overtaken by trees and floods and all other sorts of natural phenomena. The strength of the tree and the boulders against the fragile glass windows surrounding it voiced a slightly humbling reminder of the transient nature of civilisation in comparison to the monumentality of the natural world.
I then moved on to find the sculpture I was looking for: me! Or ‘Laura’ by Jaume Plensa (2013). I’m going to include the description from the online guide because I think it actually summed up the experience of viewing the sculpture really well:
‘Laura’ is part of Jaume Plensa’s on-going series of portraits. Each sculpture is drawn from a particular model of a young girl, whose image is then elaborated into a more universal symbol for dreaming and aspiring. ‘Laura’ hovers between childhood and nascent womanhood, personifying an individual future and being symbolic of the future of humanity. Each sculpture has a spirit that communicates to us across cultures and identities. When the viewer first sees Laura, her silhouette stands out against its surrounding, but when the viewer moves closer Laura appears to shift her orientation. The play on form and perception and a slippage between volume and image are part of Plensa’s great contributions to postmodern sculpture.
Approaching the sculpture was an incredibly serene experience, a little like tiptoeing up to a sleeping cat or dog – or human for that matter! Everything around the sculpture felt very calm, spacious and bewitching. I had no shame in taking time to look at ‘Laura’, walking round her to understand the perspective, or touching the bronze to feel the points at which the pieces fitted together. I was enchanted. I walked away feeling peaceful and as though I had gained something, smiling as I climbed the stairs back up to my office and remembering why lunch breaks are just so damn important!
And so, in the same week that the decision to remove History of Art from the UK A-Level syllabus, art dragged me from my desk-bound slump and catapulted me back into the world, with all its real and earthly concerns. In only two 45 minute breaks, I had been provoked to think about Johannesburg (Kentridge / Marx) and consider the living conditions of the city’s inhabitants; travelled mentally to the Easter Islands (Rondinone) and thought about belief systems and cultural understanding, and to a valley in Northern Italy (Penone), where the inspiration for the tree and the rocks came from. I’d also thought more immediately about London – its current state as a global capital but the fragility of its position as we enter a post-Brexit world, and the potential for its eventual collapse and ruin (Penone). And, again in London, spent time in the calming presence of a pensive girl / young woman – a symbol of youthfulness and innocence at the epicentre of a financial capital, dominated by big business and a fast-paced modern, still mostly male, world. Amid all the atrociousness of Donald Trump and the American presidential campaign, this juxtaposition seemed especially pertinent.