Gormley’s piece refers to Birmingham’s industrial past; the figure is in iron, and the raised seam along its circumference signals the form of a mould, a container; it also appears bound, like one of Michelangelo’s slaves. It is chthonic, partly rooted in the ground from which iron ore is mined. It is at an ominous angle, so that the sculpture appears to move as one approaches from the direction of the station. Gormley evokes the historic through the medium of his very personal, contemporary language. In a way, Gormley, who has been working with castings of his own body for many years, originally in lead, as empty encasings of the absent body, has tactically colluded with the appropriation of his art into the necessary narratives – and in this case historicizing narratives – of public art discourse.
The city can incorporate contradiction and diffuse difference (most of the time) but it cannot frame the artwork and it cannot guarantee visual longevity. Even if gigantic in scale, or raised on a plinth, a public artwork can become as marginalised in its public perception as the homeless with whom I began this talk. W. J. T. Mitchell has constructed an exciting, if not totally convincing argument about public art and violence; the image as an act or object of violence, that is subject to vandalism; the image as a weapon of violence, that is a device for attack, coercion or simply dislocation; the image as a representation of violence – and here he cites pornography as well as traditional monuments to destruction. But he omits the final miserable act of violence which is that of creeping invisibility. ‘There is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments’ wrote Robert Musil. ‘Doubtless they have been erected to be seen – even to attract attention; yet at the same time something has impregnated them against attention. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment…’
Artist Richard Wilson has submitted many schemes for public art competitions without so far being ‘awarded’ a commission; he does not regard his work as either public or private. His installation at Matt’s Gallery in London during the Spring of 1994 was entitled Watertable. Matt’s Gallery has always been the most private of public galleries: where the curator collaborates with the artist on creating an installation for a short period of time; where there is no artistic ‘product’ for sale, and which is only open at certain times. It is the proverbial pure white cube, but it is within an industrial building. (Here at last is the connection between art and industry!) Part of the magic of Watertable for me was the way the work was hidden behind a closed door, to be mysteriously revealed; the way the table was placed diagonally between the slender industrial columns, adding dynamic to the formal orientation of the room; the moment of surprise when one understood how the concrete floor had been excavated to contain the billiard table, or heard a drip of water within the concrete pipe and suddenly perceived that the artist has bored down to the water-table below; the view out of the window at the adjacent canal, now, ominously, connected with the inside. The billiard table was undeniably just a billiard table. It was also a green field at the level of the floor, and a line and semi-circular markings just hinting at the public arena of the football pitch, itself unreal astro-turf. All of this was very private, very quiet and very uneasy. The gallery framed the work, at the same time as the piece subverted its architectural host-space. It was work that questioned its own context.
Although Wilson rejects a dialectics of public and private, the tension between them seems to me to be the subject of this work. And the effectiveness of the critique depended on the semi-privacy of its siting. Whether art in public spaces in the 1990s can challenge the politics of its placement and critique its own enactment outside of the privileged space of the gallery is for me one of the central issues of the public art debate.
Published by the Centre for the Study of Sculpture in association with the Arts Council of England.
© 1994 the author