Culture24 On The Trail Of... Britain's Best Public Art

By Mark Sheerin | 08 September 2011
Colour photo showing a tiny bronze sculpture of a baby shoe on a promenade wall
Tracey Emin, Shoe from series Baby Things (2008). Folkestone Triennial 2008© Thierry Bal
Culture24 On The Trail Of... Britain's best public art: Read the introduction then simply scroll down and click through to find a place to visit...

It might be time to stop using the term public art. After all, the phrase is often taken to include architecture, benches, graffiti and even works of art inside public buildings. If everything is public art, then surely nothing can be, really.

So for the purposes of this Culture24 trail, we suggest you consider the following works fall into a new bracket: art in public. They appear to play by the rules of art, before they engage with the rules of the local council.

At times this can lead to expensive mistakes. Take Rachel Whiteread’s full scale cast of the interior of a terraced house, sadly demolished in 1994. Unlike public art, art in public is not firstly about ticking strategic boxes.

But when art in public does gain popular approval, its reach can be much greater than the many more practical pieces of anonymous decoration which brighten up our towns and cities. Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North now has a global public.

It is not even a question of scale. Sometimes art in public can be as small as items of baby clothes, as is the case of Tracey Emin’s permanent contribution to the streets of Folkestone. And this seems more relevant than any number of effigies of dignitaries.

Of course, both art in public and public art in the UK have much in common: tenuous funding, convoluted approval processes and up to 60 million fierce critics. All of which might just make it the most difficult art form of all. It’s worth celebrating.

So without further ado, here are Culture24's suggestions for a visit:

Victor Pasmore, Apollo Pavillion (1969)

A textbook example of art in public can be found in newtown Peterlee in County Durham. After all, many local residents have found this pavilion by Victor Pasmore a lot less inspiring than the moon landing it was named after.

More than a decade after completing the architectural monument, Pasmore was still defending the work, dragged into a public meeting in 1982. But since a restoration in 2009, the uncompromising optimism of 20th century modernism lives on in Teeside.

David Mach, Brick Train (1997)

There’s another bold misuse of architecture in not so distant Darlington. RA sculptor Mach has made a speeding steam train from 185,000 bricks. Best views are from the A66 or the carpark of a local supermarket.

In its use of mass produced material, this counter intuitive landmark is typical of the artist. But the work in question does have praiseworthy links with the North Easterly site. Britain’s first railway in 1825 was the Stockton-Darlington line.

Felice Varini, 3 Ellipses for 3 Locks (2007)

It is hard to think of anyone objecting to Varini’s piece of cheerful anamorphosis. Once you’ve found the single vantage point from which his bright yellow stripes coalesce into three ellipses, you are presumably hooked.

The only less-than-accessible aspects of the work are the hard to paint outer sea walls. Mountaineers were rigged in to help implement the design, which took a year to plan. And there are 30 more open air displays in the Cardiff Bay area, making it worth a visit.

Martin Creed, Work No. 1059 (2011)

To say Creed does his art by numbers is not necessarily an insult. The artist’s mathematical logic is on fine form with Work No.1059. 104 different shades of marble have been used to colour each of the Scotsman’s Steps in Edinburgh

It’s not the first time the Turner Prize winner has used different tones to dramatise means of ascent or descent. Other works include musical scales piped into lifts in galleries and, this summer, on a cliff face in Folkestone.

Simon Faithfull, Liverpool to Liverpool (2010)

Once you start noticing the pixelated etchings in the steps of Liverpool’s Lime Street, you can’t stop. There are 181 of Faithfull’s drawings on paving slabs and windows, showing a range of locations from Liverpool, UK, to Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

The well-travelled artist has been using a digital device to make sketches for a decade now, and his transitory scenes are a paradoxical destination in themselves. Or, if you prefer, simply a pleasant diversion while waiting for your rail connection.

Close up colour photo of a figure etched into a step
Simon Faithfull, Liverpool to Liverpool (2010)© Simon Faithfull
Art on the Underground, 2000 to present

Few transport systems can have such a rich heritage as London Underground. And its recent past has got even richer thanks to the quality and boldness of its art commissions. New and established artists have redesigned map covers and put on installations in stations.

Jeremy Deller, Eva Rothschild and Michael Landy are but a few of the contemporary names to entertain and edify commuters. Londoners and tube workers have also found themselves the subject of work, which manages to be both inclusive and intelligent.

The Fourth Plinth

Britons are so used to seeing contemporary art on a prime spot in Trafalgar Square now it is difficult to believe that before 1999, one plinth sat empty for more than 150 years. Since then it has hosted work by Marc Quinn, Antony Gormley and currently Yinka Shonibare.

Shortlisting candidates for the prestigious commission has, likewise, become a fixture in the calendar. We can still wonder at the impact which a carbomb-wrecked chassis (Jeremy Deller) or a pipe organ cash machine (Allora and Calzadilla) might have had in London’s grandest space.

Folkestone Triennial permanent works

With seven permanent works already and, one hopes, several more destined to outlive the 2011 Triennial, Folkestone is now the UK’s best town for art in public. Certainly, it is the best place to spot diminutive works by Tracey Emin.

Richard Wentworth, Richard Wilson and Mark Wallinger are also represented by site specific pieces here. And 2011 saw the arrival of a mermaid to rival Copenhagen’s. This bronze figure by Cornelia Parker, based on a local, is surely one to keep.

Jaume Plensa, Dream (2009)

Here’s proof, if such were needed, that getting public projects off the ground can be emotional. Former mining community St Helens needed a symbol of hope so much that Channel 4 was able to build a reality TV show around the town’s "journey".

The elongated, luminescent bust made using white concrete and Spanish dolomite aggregate is as far as you can get from the depths of a coalmine. And the 20-metre high sculpture can be enjoyed equally well by passing motorists on the M62.

Andy Scott, Heavy Horse (1997)

One of Scotland’s best known landmarks can be found outside Glasgow, where a steel Clydesdale horse rises 4.5m high to offer a chance to reflect on local agriculture, industry and even transport. It is after all next to a road called the M8.

Artist Scott is well used to working in the public realm and has a number of steel horses in his global portfolio. This may soon include the world’s largest equestrian statue as the 30m Kelpies take shape outside Falkirk.

Andy Scott, Beacon of Hope (2007)

As if there were not enough hoops for the designers of public art, here’s a figurative sculpture with one more. Andy Scott's spiralling 20m woman holds aloft a ring of thanksgiving.

It may have come as some relief to get the greenlight in a city as political as Belfast. But if a range of nicknames is anything to go by, locals have taken the Beacon of Hope to their hearts. Or should that be The Nuala with the Hula?

Colour photo of a steel sculpted figure holduing a hoop
Andy Scott, Beacon of Hope (2007)© Ardfern (Wikimedia Commons)
Antony Gormley, The Angel of the North (1998)

It commands the attention of anyone passing via the A1 or the East Coast Main Line. But with 20m of height and a 54m span, Gormley’s statue is even wider than it looks.

Since 1998 the Angel has become an emblem of the North East and pressed into service by television producers and creative football fans alike. But do not forget there was a campaign to stop this work being built at one time. That surely proves this is art in public, not just public art.

Antony Gormley, Another Place (2007)

It seems hard to believe but even Gormley’s 6ft figurines on Crosby Beach have caused controversy before now. Health and safety experts feared viewers would sink into the sand; conservationists questioned the impact of extra tourism; others claimed the naked male figures were pornographic.

But in 2007 Sefton Council voted to keep the statues, which have already been shown in Germany, Norway and Belgium. It would be interesting to know if our neighbours in Europe had as many issues with this piece.

Taro Cheizo, Superlambanana (1998)

Not many planning committees would jump at the chance to commission an eight tonne cross between a lamb and a banana. But Cheizo’s sculpture is now a civic icon, as well as being an ironic comment on GM and historic cargo in the Mersey docks.

Currently in Tithebarn Street, Superlambanana has moved around the city and changed colour during its stay in Liverpool. And in 2008, when it found itself in the European Capital of Culture, it also spawned 125 minature replicas throughout the city.

Chris Drury, Heart of Reeds (2005)

Land artist and Sussex local Drury has sculpted a 1.6 hectare reed bed into the form of a cross section of a human heart. What is even more remarkable is that the nature reserve in which you can find this project is slap bang in the middle of town.

Waterways from the River Ouse slowly pump through this vegetative organ, viewable from a landscaped hillock at one end. But in many ways Heart of Reeds is a victim of its own ecological success. It is by now almost too overgrown to be seen.

muf architecture/art, Barking Town Square (2008)

As the name of the designers suggests, Barking Town Square is as architectural as it is arty. But either way it is creative. A pink granite square is surrounded by a crumbing red brick folly, an arboretum and a black and white terrazzo arcade.

The non-functional folly at one end of the square hides a supermarket. For that alone, you might say this project deserved to be the first in Britain to win the European Prize for Urban Public Space. So art can conceal as well as reveal.

Jonathan Adams, façade of the Wales Millenium Centre (2009)

A venue for opera and ballet doubles up as a Roman classical frieze on which poet Gwyneth Lewis has inscribed phrases in Welsh and English. His letters also form windows into the bar area, which of course are lit up at night.

In Welsh it reads "Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen" and in English "These stones horizons sing". But the local lingo makes a bit more sense, as it means "Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration".

A colour photo of an opera house facade with giant letters making windows
The Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff© grahamwell (Wikimedia Commons)
Wolfgang Buttress, Rise (under contruction)

As you might guess from the title, this 30m geodesic sphere aims to represent a new dawn in the now more or less peaceable capital of Northern Ireland. The monument on the Broadway roundabout will take over from Beacon of Hope as largest artwork in Belfast.

Artist Buttress has borrowed design ideas from the 20th century engineer Buckminster Fuller, who in recent years has enjoyed much discussion in art circles, thanks in part to a 2008 retrospective at the Whitney in New York.

Anish Kapoor, ArcelorMittal Orbit (under construction)

It has been described as London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. But the French icon of modernism was named after its designer, whereas Kapoor’s tower is named after its sponsor. That tells you much of what you need to know.

However, it should be breathtaking. The spiralling tower is rapidly approaching its full height of 115m and should astound mathematicians and engineers every bit as much as the tourists who will no doubt flock to ride to its viewing platforms.

Gillian Wearing, A Real Birmingham Family (due in 2013)

Perhaps no less of a conceptual challenge, if not a technical one, is Wearing’s attempt to find a single family to represent a million brummies. Applicants were recruited by a city-roving photographer and replica plinth.

A model 21st century relational unit - two mixed-race sisters and the two boys they are raising on their own - was chosen by a panel of prominent locals. The artist then immortalised the winners in bronze for a traditional-looking monument in Centenary Square.

Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
Museum Crush digest sign up ad