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Blots on the cityscape

London is awash with bad public art. Richard Dorment urges councils to rid the streets of all the kitsch

15 October 2011

2:00 PM

15 October 2011

2:00 PM

As the 414 bus swings left from the Edgware Road at Marble Arch you avert your eyes, hoping you won’t have to look at the thing looming up in front of you for a single second longer than you have to. Even so, you know it’s there — a blot on the sky, a gulp of polluted air. I’m talking about a 33-ft-high bronze sculpture in the form of a decapitated horse, muzzle pointed downwards, in the middle of Marble Arch. The epitome of ghastly good taste, it looks like an expensive knick-knack from Harrods blown up to a size that would have appealed to Saddam Hussein.

When the thing arrived, the Evening Standard assured us that it would be on view for only one month. But in October 2010 it was joined by a ‘family’ of five plastic jelly babies, the smallest of which is over 7.5ft tall. At the beginning of this year another eyesore appeared in Park Lane on the grass divide opposite the Dorchester. ‘Vroom Vroom’ is a real car in the grasp of an enormous child’s hand. Easily mistaken for a promotion by one of the car dealerships along Park Lane, this too belongs in the realm of pure kitsch — alongside ‘Hand of God’ by the same artist (an open palm holding a life-size human figure) installed in Park Lane a couple of months ago. All four sculptures are to remain in place through the Olympic and the Diamond Jubilee year. All are on loan from commercial art galleries as part of Westminster Council’s City of Sculpture Festival. All are for sale.  

Bad art grates because it is meretricious. You see everything there is to see and understand everything there is to understand about it on your first encounter. Any attempt to interrogate or interpret it is a waste of time. When you come across it in a gallery, you shrug and move on. But bad public sculpture is in your face. It degrades the quality of daily life as surely as Muzak or the mobile phone conversations of other people. It sets the teeth on edge and ruins the day.

So how did we end up with this festival of expensive tat? In September 2010, just as that monstrous horse head was being lowered into place, Westminster Council announced the axing of its Public Art Advisory Panel, which for 14 years had offered expert opinion on the commissioning and placement of public art in London. Before we whip out our hankies, though, remember that this is the panel that OK’d (or at least failed to stop) both the Queen Elizabeth Gate at Hyde Park Corner — the one that looks as if it were designed by Zandra Rhodes on a bad day — and that bucket of sentimental kitsch, the ‘Animals in War Memorial’ in Park Lane — aka the ‘Monument to Bambi’s Mother’.

Feeble as the Advisory Panel was, at its meetings the merits of proposed artworks could at least be discussed and alternative options surveyed. When the panel got the boot, one of its members predicted that in the absence of any kind of vetting procedure the floodgates would open and ‘banal, safe, dreary and unambitious’ work would be given the go-ahead. This is exactly what happened.

Planning permission for public statuary is now in the hands of Robert Davis, deputy head of Westminster Council and cabinet member for the built environment. Davis says that he has ‘excellent’ officers to advise him. Yet at a time when British monumental sculpture has never been more dynamic he and his cronies have pockmarked some of London’s most prominent public spaces with art that make the whole city look

Never having heard of any of the artists who made the works being shown at Marble Arch and along Park Lane, I telephoned the Lisson, White Cube and the Frith Street Galleries, as well as the New Art Centre at Roche Court in Wiltshire and the Cass Sculpture Foundation in West Sussex. Between them, these galleries represent virtually all the most celebrated and influential sculptors in this country. Any curator or collector looking for young or emerging talent would go to these dealers first. Yet only one gallery on that list had even been contacted by Westminster Council — and in that case the dealer refused to have anything to do with the Festival as soon as he was given a list of the sculptors already chosen to participate in it.

So where does Councillor Davis find this stuff? All the sculptures I’ve mentioned above come from two art galleries located in the heart of Mayfair — the Halcyon Gallery (‘Jelly Baby Family’, ‘VroomVroom’ and ‘Hand of God’, plus a new addition installed last weekend, ‘Search for Enlightenment’ by Simon Gudgeon in Riverside Walk Garden, Millbank) and the Sladmore Gallery (‘Horse at Water’). Other Mayfair galleries (and one foreign embassy) have paid for the placement of scarcely more interesting sculptures in Soho, Cavendish and Berkeley Squares, and in both Victoria Gardens and Brown Hart Gardens. The City of Sculpture Festival looks to me like no more than an open-air showroom for a few favoured galleries hoping to flog their wares to credulous visitors from abroad.  

My criticism is directed not at the artists or the galleries but at the breathtaking arrogance of the local politicians who selected this work. Not having knowledge or taste themselves, they could not be bothered to consult anyone who did. It would have cost nothing to have asked a committee of genuine experts working with serious dealers to help put together a display of monumental sculpture that visitors from all over the world would have come to London to see. How infuriating that, instead of ‘Jelly Baby Family’, we could have had important pieces by the likes of Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Mark Wallinger, Shirazeh Houshiary, Stephen Cox, Tony Cragg, Antony Caro and Gary Webb.

One reason why the Public Art Advisory Panel existed was to prevent any suspicion that works of art displayed in London are chosen for reasons other than artistic merit.  If only for its own protection, Westminster Council needs to reform the panel, this time with representatives from the Henry Moore Foundation, Tate, Artangel and the Government Art Collection as well as architects, landscape architects and artists.

But what’s happened along Park Lane and Marble Arch is only part of the problem. London (and not just Westminster) is awash with bad public art. Anyone with money has been able to get planning permission to put up a statue anywhere they like. Not only should this laissez-faire attitude cease, but the horrors that have already appeared at St Pancras Station, the South Bank, Grosvenor Square, Knightsbridge and Holland Park Avenue should be removed from public view and if possible placed indoors so the rest of us don’t have to look at them. 

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