PMSA's Marsh Awards 2017: Richard Wilson RA

Public Art – Observations

by Richard Wilson RA

The past couple of decades have seen a massive upsurge in investment in public art. All over Britain cities have jumped onto the ‘Arts for Regeneration’ bandwagon, using temporary and permanent works of art to provide a convenient symbol of city pride in the improved environment. Yet the term ‘public’ is a curious one. When John Lee Hooker was asked if his music was folk music, he replied that all music was folk music – ‘I ain’t seen no horse playing.’

So surely any art viewed is being viewed by the public. This starts to raise many questions such as, is public art set in opposition to gallery work because it is more accessible? Are there a different set of rules at play between gallery and public works? Who or what is public art for? Who is the public? Is there a feeling that unlike gallery art, public art is often compromised by impractical expectations and bureaucratic delays? Is a temporary work more ambitious than its permanent counterpart? Temporary work seems freer from pandering to many constraints, like lengthy consultation processes and too many chiefs. 

Can public art achieve a lasting reference and remain compelling? Should there be any expectation for works to be permanent? Any work planned to occupy a space for more than 28 days is considered by a local authority as permanent. This means it needs to be granted planning consent and therefore plans are served for the public’s notice. The granting of permission depends, in part on objections the public, or indeed the planners themselves, may raise during the consultation period, which is usually eight weeks.

Who has the right to remove public works? Who commits these aesthetic blunders, for example, dismantling Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York, or prematurely bulldozing Rachel Whiteread’s House? Is this council ordained vandalism agreed by the public? We need to get local authorities to stop worrying about how long the work will last and consider how long the work will have an impact.

Regardless of the pros and cons surrounding public art, we cannot deny that it fulfils a vital service to British culture. It allows us, as spectators, to take a position so we can let others know who we are or where we stand. Like others following this career, I have suffered accusations that the money would be better spent on kidney machines or nursery schools, and therefore one’s defence has to be seriously considered. Turning the Place Over, Liverpool Biennial and 18 Holes, Folkestone, both suffered the initial ‘Wot the… is it?’, but once they were engaged and the work had been explained – Mr Outraged of Liverpool and Mrs Outraged of Folkestone were both on board.

What is therefore evident in these two examples is that validation or rejection of my work was not limited strictly to aesthetics, but was also related to territory, patronage and morality. Some of the Northern Regional Development Agencies, those big political heavyweights, believe that major public art can contribute to their strategic aims on multiple levels. They could see that Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, Thomas Heatherwick’s B of the Bang and and my Turning the Place Over not only push the boundaries of what can be achieved in public art, but in so doing, can significantly add to the region’s world-class cultural offering. Further to this, Welcome to the North’s public art funding strand, believed that iconic art, such as Angel of the NorthB of the Bang and Turning the Place Over can have a positive impact on both the local economy and quality of life issues. More specifically, it was felt this cultural offering of public art would increase positive perceptions of the North, both nationally and internationally. This would ultimately attract more skilled people, entrepreneurs, investors and tourists to the North, whilst also improving the quality of place for people living there.

So if public art ideally creates better places and provides enjoyment, insight and maybe even hope to its viewers. What must the artist do? Go where all else dare not, taking risks, generating new possibilities that encompass qualities of thinking such as flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity or unpredictability? I say congratulations to creative risk taking! Indeed, not taking risks is dangerous and unhealthy and leaves us numb. But where do these risks, pitfalls or hurdles lie for the artist? Fundamentally there seem, from my experience, to be three areas that make or break public art works – these being funding, technical and manufacture, and bureaucracy. There is, however, an unregulated fourth – you have to have a damn good idea from the artist in the first place for the site to work. It’s a tall order ‘making special’ enabling humans to feel good, embodying meaning, having a dynamic approach in which everything is possible, transforming the space and emphasising the concept of placemaking. Yet these unreasonable expectations are often implicit or embedded in the commissioning of public art, along with horrendous contractual obligations and planning. Yes, that dreaded word – planning. Square the Block (fig.4), 2009, my commission located at the corner of Kingsway and Sardinia Street on the LSE’s New Academic Building was positioned unexpectedly at the meeting of two London Boroughs. It stood in Camden, but was best appreciated from Westminster. Westminster loved it and agreed to it. Camden disliked Westminster’s dictatorial approach and they refused it. I understand the directive was ‘Go and see what Wilson is doing and tell him to stop it.’ But hey, sculpture is an art form not a development. I cannot believe that the purpose of planning control is to enforce boring and mediocre uniformity, any system of control must make some space for the dynamic, the unexpected and the downright quirky.

Artists don’t inflict work on audiences, but acceptance of the gift is crucial. Perhaps it’s necessary to apply some art-world standards to appraise the art, such as is it good work? Does it improve or energise its site in some way? Is there evidence of relevant or appropriate public engagement or use?

To sum up, a great work should not just be about one thing, but a richness of ideas. It should not be limited by time, and should have a source of energy that keeps it relevant. If it does not, then there are never consequences.

Main image: Richard Wilson delivering the keynote speech at the PMSA’s Marsh Awards 2017 (photo: Leonie Summers)

Aurora Corio