What is the purpose of public art?

A giant blue bird sculpture in London’s Trafalgar Square challenges our preconceptions about the purpose of public art, argues Alastair Sooke.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here it is: the big, blue… bird!” So proclaimed the Mayor of London Boris Johnson last week. On cue, assistants tugged at black drapes to reveal the latest public sculpture to occupy the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: a gigantic electric-blue cockerel by the German artist Katharina Fritsch.

When I cycled past the sculpture, which is called Hahn/Cock, later that morning, it made me laugh out loud. The colour of the rooster, reminiscent of the iridescent, otherworldly pigment patented by the French artist Yves Klein, offers a surreal, comical contrast to the drab bronze statuary and buttoned-up grey facades of the grand buildings nearby.

More importantly, the double entendre of its title is fully intended: with his stiff, punk-like coxcomb and jowly wattle, this puffed-up cockerel is meant to appear pompous and ridiculous. I particularly enjoyed his magnificently rumpled tail feathers. There’s something deliberately deflating about the manner in which they droop, so that the cockerel has the bleary aura of a whoring-and-roistering old rogue, worse the wear from drink, still strutting despite being unable to perform in the bedroom.

Here, then, is a sally by a female artist against the many vainglorious monuments commemorating self-important men that have been erected all over the world. Of course, the rooster isn’t the only sculpture of an animal in the vicinity – Edwin Landseer’s bronze lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column are some of London’s principal tourist attractions. Nevertheless there are several examples of statues of doughty old heroes in Trafalgar Square – not least Admiral Horatio Nelson, who surveys the British capital from the top of his tall Corinthian column. Fritsch’s work is the latest in a series of temporary sculptures to occupy the otherwise empty Fourth Plinth in the square’s northwest corner (the plinth was built in 1841 to support an equestrian statue of William IV for which funds were never raised). It got me thinking about the triumphs and pitfalls of public art.

In a broad sense, public art is as old as the hills: think of the statues of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The four colossal-seated sculptures of Ramesses II hewn out of the sandstone facade of his rock temple at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt were designed with a very specific public in mind – his Nubian enemies. A blunt display of imperial chest thumping, this is art that bludgeons the viewer into submission. Millennia later, Michelangelo’s marble statue of David offered another example of the symbiotic relationship between art and the state: positioned outside in the Piazza della Signoria, it became a public symbol of the independence of the Florentine Republic.

Bronze age

In the 20th century, though, public art really came into its own. Conscious that traditional bronze statuary commemorating dignitaries and worthies had become commonplace and overlooked, modern artists vied to produce memorable works of art for public spaces. In the decades after World War II, the British artist Henry Moore became the go-to man for prestigious public commissions, and today his distinctive bronze figures and abstract forms can be seen all over the world.

But today public art is a curious phenomenon. It is big business – the industry is thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds each year in England alone – but often it exists in limbo, pleasing neither art critics nor the public.

There are many examples of brilliant contemporary public art that were not allowed to flourish. The American sculptor Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a 120ft-long (37m) wall of slanting, weathered steel bisecting the Federal Plaza in New York, was constructed in 1981 but removed eight years later, following much public gnashing of teeth that so much money had been spent on a “rusted metal wall”. Serra’s critic-friendly sculpture did not chime with the public – though his unsettling Fulcrum (1987), which consists of massive sheets of steel propped together like a potentially lethal house of cards, is still standing near Liverpool Street station in London.

Meanwhile Rachel Whiteread’s concrete sculpture House, a cast of the interior of a demolished Victorian terraced townhouse, was one of the most important British works of art of the ’90s. Erected in the autumn of 1993, it haunted east London like a ghost until it was removed the following year, in part because locals deemed it an eyesore.

Woman in white

At the other extreme, a lot of public art gets commissioned that is popular despite being deemed execrable by the critics. After it appeared in Chicago, where it quickly became a hit with tourists, Seward Johnson’s kitsch statue of Marilyn Monroe grappling with her white dress as a blast of air blows it upwards (a tribute to the actress’s famous scene in the 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch) featured in a much-publicised list of the worst public art in the world. Depending on your opinion, it now adorns or blights Palm Springs, California.

When public art works, though, it pleases both camps – the elite as well as everyone else. Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North in Gateshead, England is a good example: a memorial for Britain’s declining industrial heritage, it has become a popular symbol for the country as a whole, starring in trails for the BBC’s flagship television channel in the UK.

Perhaps the best example, though, is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, aka ‘The Bean’, in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Like some extraterrestrial visitation, this stainless-steel sculpture resembles a massive blob of liquid mercury. Its distorting reflective surfaces warp the appearance of reality and do strange things to our perception of space. It also provides the perfect backdrop for a killer photo opportunity.

Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock isn’t in the same league as Cloud Gate – its jokey, ribald subtext ensures that it feels more ephemeral than Kapoor’s classic, timeless form. But it does play clever games with the historical expectations of public art, which so often privileges men by putting them on plinths.. Good public art doesn’t have to commemorate men – and it doesn’t have to be big.

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.

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