Supersize art: The Kelpies in Falkirk

The Kelpies are the latest addition to Britain's growing army of enormous sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?

Britain's newest super-sized sculptures arrive this week. The Kelpies are an intriguing pair of giant horse heads in Falkirk that will make any car journey up the M9 infinitely more interesting. At 30m tall and 300 tons, they are the largest equine sculptures on Earth.

Birmingham is shopping for a new chunk of civic art, Sheffield hopes to install its huge Man of Steel next year, Mark Wallinger's enormous white horse for Kent is still on the drawing board, and Anish Kapoor's Orbit in east London recently re-opened. Britain likes it big. But, for the council committees commissioning them, is it more about re-branding a place than a love of art?

"I'm not entirely sure," says Andy Scott, the affable sculptor of The Kelpies. "It's a hell of a risky way to re-brand. Any council or civic authority would have to be very certain that it would work in their favour."

Public art is mainstream now, but it hasn't always been the norm. The monument that shifted attitudes was Anthony Gormley's Angel of The North, which opened in 1998, and become both a symbol of the North-east and of how Britain finally fell for sculpture.

Some places are luckier than others when it comes to their over-sized art: St Ives has beautiful Barbara Hepworths dotted about, while nearby Ilfracombe has Damien Hirst's Verity – a pregnant woman torn open.

Sculpture, even if – as critics of Verity or Orbit would argue – it's not very good, at least brings art into people's lives. But super-sized sculpture is already all around us, in unexpected places. Gateshead had one before the Angel – its acclaimed Dunston Rocket tower block, which it tore down in 2012. Sheffield had its Tinsley cooling towers, which it blew up, and in whose footprint Man of Steel will sit instead. Tower blocks and industrial structures have become unfashionable. They lack the touristy sheen that image-conscious British towns of today want. Yet Anthony Gormley loves a cooling tower. He told the BBC's Omnibus in 2000 that: "Something like that is incredibly inspiring. It's better than a cathedral."

Big sculpture has a long history. "The construction of large public sculpture has always been there, from the Ancient Egyptians to the present day," says Peter Murray, director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, home to a flock of Henry Moores. As with many observers, Murray wants more art and less PR from this wave of British mega structures: "What I hope for is a greater concern with scale, artistic context and integrity, rather than [sculpture as] a means of promoting regeneration."

Birmingham is the latest city on the hunt for a super-sized sculpture. It already has a giant Gormley of its own, Iron: Man in Victoria Square. But Gormley fell out with the city fathers after saying in the same Omnibus film that: "I think the Square is appalling, a monument to Thatcherite Britain... it was very, very important to me that I made something that had absolutely nothing to do with that kind of shit."

Despite this disconnect between civic showing-off and artistic temperament, Brum has been mulling a return for Nic Munro's giant pop-art King Kong. A new film about the sculpture's life is in production, charting its journey from the old Bull Ring in 1972 to a car park in Penrith – where it sits poised for a potential return to the Midlands. As grand statements go, it's certainly a big one.

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