Wouldn’t it be nice, in these divided times, for humanity to have a common enemy – preferably an inanimate one. Welcome to the What’s That Thing? Award. We’re in our second year, hunting down the most execrable new pieces of public art that have appeared in the past year in this country and this time we’ve teamed up with the Architecture Foundation.
The prize grew out of a report I wrote six years ago when we were at peak public-art-as-urban-panacea and every council was desperately clambering over itself to add a bit of swanky tat to their portfolio of local amenities. (I remember going to a public art ‘consultation exercise’ in John O’Groats where two artists delivered a powerpoint presentation to the slightly baffled locals trying to convince them that a sculpture would revive the town’s fortunes. It didn’t.)
Why is so much art commissioned for public spaces so poor, so hated by so many, so likely to fail even on its own terms, and what to do about it – that, broadly, was the report’s remit. My conclusions were mainly: take control away from people who think art is there to cure the country’s economic and social ills. (Hastings Council used to claim, in all seriousness, that public art would be able to ‘reduce death rates from circulatory disease… and cancer in people under 75’.)
Another possible way to stem the tide of crap is this award; that is, shame the makers and commissioners into a period of silence.
So far… well, let’s say we have a lot more shaming to do. One of the worst culprits, the never-ending City of Sculpture festival in Westminster that was to blame for the atrocity that won our inaugural award, ‘She Guardian’, continues to plant abominations throughout the centre of London (it’s back on the longlist this year).
Still, plenty has changed since 2011. Public art has got better. Or at least less bad. It is less hated. Less likely to fail on its own terms. There are far fewer lolz to be had from public art. Mainly because it doesn’t hang around for long enough. The turd-in-the-plaza has given way to the experiential and fleeting. A kind of zero-hours-contract public art has replaced the nine-to-five.
On the whole, we should be thankful for this. Some of the public art that has stayed longest in the mind has been tantalisingly shortlived. Remember Jeremy Deller’s ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ (2016), a performance piece lasting a day that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme through the lightest of touches by planting a bunch of men and women dressed up in first-world-war gear in city squares and commuter trains, then snatching them away from us.
That said, modesty and transience doesn’t prevent art from being awful – it just makes it harder to find. Which is what we’re here for.
Over the coming days we’ll be unveiling the shortlist for the second What’s That Thing? Award and then next Thursday at the Royal College of Art, during an evening of talks and discussions on this perennially juicy subject, Stephen Bayley will announce the winner.
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