Birmingham has at least redesigned the city connections between its civic and cultural institutions; let us not forget that most British towns only pedestrianise their shopping street and plop public art, like public loos, amongst the paviors and the planters. Victoria Square is also a complex series of narratives, and ‘arena for the encounter between differences’ as Lefebvre describes city spaces. On the one hand there is the city sponsored development, with a central fountain with sculptures by Dhruva Mistry; on the other hand there is Antony Gormley’s Iron Man commissioned by the TSB for the front of their Birmingham headquarters. The contiguous schemes alert us to the fact that this public space is owned by business and local government, by share-holders, investors and council tax payers alike. Their claims to the space are by no means resolved, although they all seem to make a claim on history.
The sphinxes by Dhruva Mistry around the stepped pool are in a long tradition of such composite figures. Sphinxes and chimaere represent the intermingling of east/west, archaic/classical, benign/frightening, known/unknown. Dhruva Mistry is a very successful artist born in India, and this project represents an acknowledgement of Birmingham’s cultural diversity. It also represents a very tight controlling brief, to which the artist was required to conform. The sculptures have a certain mechanistic quality, perhaps because they were contracted out, one of the hazards of large-scale commissions. Mistry’s work is usually modelled in a more fluid manner.
The notion of a ‘water feature’ is a favourite bit of design-speak, beloved of patrons and architects, and seems part of an easy assumption that modern public art follows in a long tradition back to the Italian baroque. Water features incorporated into hard gardening have to do with symmetry, with geometry, with regulation, and of course power, in the sense of control of the infrastructure. Someone can pull the plug or turn the water supply on or off. The formal gardens at Versailles, the model for most subsequent fountain projects however modest, are about hierarchies of space, centralising organisation, and the subjugation of disorderly nature to an imperial programme.
(I often think of this when working in the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and look at the little ‘Versigh’ of the central courtyard, the divinely suburban Pirelli Garden, representing the iron fist in the rubber plug). It was perhaps not by chance that Rory Coonan, an Arts Council officer who was also the adviser on the Victoria Square project, envisaged an authoritarian and historicising water works in front of the City’s Council Chambers.
We might compare the intentions, if not the scale, of this city-square scheme with major public art projects in France. Dani Karavan’s Axe Majueur for Cergy-Pontoise 1986-7 and Daniel Buren’s installation in the Cour d’Honneur, Palais Royal, Paris, 1985, although they eschew narrative figuration in favour of minimal abstraction, are directly involved with the grand narratives of centrist power. The gigantism of the schemes, and strictness of their geometries and planning – Karavan’s great directional swathe cut through Cergy situates the satellite town in relation to Paris and the Place de la Concorde, and the overwhelming proliferation of Buren’s dissected columns – situate these projects as the direct heirs of historicist State grandeur.