Architecture: Shocks to the civic system: The latest examples of Birmingham's commitment to public art have not impressed the city's residents, says Chris Arnot

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE Iron Man - a 20ft, rusting iron hulk looming over Birmingham's Victoria Square - is a controversial pounds 10,000 gift to the city from the Trustee Savings Bank. Its huge feet are rammed into the paving stones outside the bank's new national headquarters in what was once Birmingham's central post office.

It is difficult to find anyone with an indifferent word for this inflated symbol of Birmingham's cultural renaissance. Indignant critics have barraged the local press with letters. Children tap at its legs and reach up to peel off the deep reddish-brown rust.

The new sculpture does have its defenders. One - not surprisingly - is Sir Nicholas Goodison, chairman of the TSB. Another is Terry Grimley, arts editor of the Birmingham Post.

The sculptor, Antony Gormley, describes it as 'rooted in the traditions of labour of Birmingham and the Black Country and a celebration of that tradition'. Gormley's design was welded together with meticulous precision by workers in one of the city's few surviving foundries.

In its post-industrial phase, Birmingham has embraced Culture with a capital C and has been investing in public art on an impressive scale; so much so that sculpture has become a topic of conversation on the city's streets as well as among the art world.

Reaction to much of the new sculpture is negative. While some of this can be put down to the 'shock of the new' factor, there is no doubt that some works are better suited to private galleries than to city squares. Europa and the Bull, for example, a 3ft-high titanium representation of the God Zeus disguised as a bull and lowered over a naked woman is widely considered degrading. Councillors have dismissed it as soft pornography and, despite pleas from the artist, Alex Palkovich, it remains banned from public display.

Vivien Lovell, director of the Birmingham-based Public Art Commissions Agency, is committed to the city's artistic transformation. Her agency commissions artworks throughout Britain (including the new international terminal at Waterloo), but she feels that Birmingham is the city most responsive to new ideas about public art.

Ten years ago, Birmingham City Council was the first in Britain to commit to a '1 per cent for art' policy, whereby 1 per cent of the cost of new buildings or public works would be devoted to artworks. One per cent of pounds 80m - the original estimated cost of the International Convention Centre - was made available, for example, for works to adorn the interior and exterior of the building and the adjoining Centenary Square.

The square itself is one of Europe's largest, a Persian carpet of brickwork created by the artist Tess Jaray. At its centre is the work that took up well over a quarter of the pounds 800,000 budget: Raymond Mason's Forward, made in a creamy fibreglass resin. This is intended to be a literal representation of the people of Birmingham's march from smoky factories towards a creamy future. It was unveiled two years ago to an outcry reminiscent of the one that has greeted the Iron Man. Sympathetic art critics lined up to defend the work against the barbs of a generally more hostile public.

'Of course, people are astonished when something strident comes into their environment,' says Ms Lovell. 'But it's far better that people should feel strongly. It would be terrible if works of art were just ignored.'

There seems little chance of that, although Mason's sculpture and the controversy surrounding it have been overshadowed by artistic events in Victoria Square. Here, long steps sweep out to either side of a new water sculpture called The River, the work of Dhruva Mistry, the youngest Royal Acadamician since Turner. Reclining in the top pool is a voluptuous bronze nude that has been dubbed 'the Floozie in the Jacuzzi'.

Water laps from her bath, cascading down towards a lower pool that contains two much smaller youthful figures. Positioned around them are what Ms Mistry calls their 'guardians': bulbous, sphinx-like creatures representing power and dignity. Ms Mistry worked closely with Birmingham's Landscape Architects Department on this, the most ambitious scheme of civic sculpture undertaken in Britain for many years.

Iron Man stands slightly to the side of the main square on a gentle slope that curves round between the Council House and the Town Hall to the smaller Chamberlain Square.

Here, the monuments to three pioneers of Birmingham's industrial past - Joseph Chamberlain, James Watt and Joseph Priestley - have recently been joined by a bronze dedicated to Thomas Attwood, a 19th-century social reformer and MP.

But instead of being elevated on a plinth, he is reclining on the steps with a book in one hand. The artist, Siobhan Coppinger, wanted to make the work 'accessible'.

That would seem to be the by-word of Birmingham's renaissance, except that no one seems to know what this means. Ms Lovell, meanwhile, is greatly excited by a forthcoming project funded by the Department of the Environment, Shelter and the City Council on a canalside site near Snow Hill Station that will bring contemporary art to those most down on their luck. The project is the first of a network of 'foyers' (or hostels) for the homeless young. 'It will be architecture of the highest quality and we have been asked to commission the artwork. It's a staggering opportunity.'

But perhaps not quite as staggering as the lop-sided Iron Man who has given international prominence to Birmingham's inevitably controversial revival of civic sculpture.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments