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Just like Marmite! Our love-hate affair with public art

Damien Hirst's Verity stands warrior-like over Ilfracombe bay, but she is far from universally welcome. At least, not yet...

Verity is her name, though some feel she's a bit Hannibal Lecter for their taste. Welcome to Ilfracombe, scene of the latest public art controversy, where a 66ft sculpture of a naked woman was erected on Wednesday. Cast in bronze, she holds a sword aloft and stands looking out to sea, apparently in a "modern allegory of truth and justice". Trouble is, half her womb is also hanging out.

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"Brilliant," was one local's reaction. "Monstrous," was another's. This is the work of Damien Hirst, after all. The 47-year-old Brit artist took a shine to this small Devon town a decade ago. Now, having bought a home here and opened a restaurant, he has made yet another generous contribution to the local economy. That's one way of looking at in. Another is to see Verity as a typical bit of Hirst willy-waving: an attention-seeking act of narcissism dumped on these guiltless Devonians.

After all, what has a pregnant woman with pointy nipples got to do with a West Country fishing village? Well, it was a bit parky on Wednesday. And, as we have learnt, public art takes a while to get used to.

Take Angel of the North. What benefit could a crude and rust-coloured birdman bring to the Gateshead stretch of the A1? "Bad taste on a vast scale," said some locals, who thought £800,000 could have been better spent. "Angel of Death," chimed others, predicting motorway pile-ups. But opinion has gradually swung behind it, and Antony Gormley's artwork is now credited with prompting the regeneration of Gateshead that has occurred over the past 15 years.

The first rule of public art is that it has to be big. The second is it has to be bold. The whole point is to start a conversation, to get people talking, whether they like it or not. A good piece of public art engages people in a way that a building or bridge wouldn't. But whether it's the size, or the irrelevance, or the apparent waste of money that people object to, often it's just the novelty.

"These things tend to grow on people. Over time these sculptures do become symbols of their regions, and replace other symbols or negative images," says Jonathan Banks of Ixia, a public art think-tank organisation. But they can also bring out the worst in a community.

In Shepton Mallet, a roundabout was decorated with concrete sheep, known as the "Rock Flock" by local sculptor Jeff Body. But within weeks of Sheep being installed in 2005, the sculptures were savagely attacked with a hammer. Body soon restored them; and today, they are a much-loved landmark, with their own Facebook Group featuring photos of them wearing woolly hats.

In Birmingham, the famous Bullring shopping area in the city centre was commemorated with a bronze bull, twice the size of an actual animal. Though instantly popular, The Bull soon attracted the wrong kind of attention, when "Moyner" and "Hasan" scratched their names on it.

Usually, once initial reaction has subsided, vandalism is less likely. One exception was Willow Man, erected in 2000 on the M5 near Bridgwater. Coming two years after Angel of the North, it inevitably became "Angel of the South". But despite initial enthusiasm, a year later it was destroyed in an arson attack. Serena de la Hey, the sculptor, was devastated, but remade it.

In Kent, planning permission has been granted for a giant white horse to adorn the bleak Ebbsfleet Valley, but building has yet to begin. The delay has partly been caused by the realisation money must be put aside for its maintenance. The cost of cleaning off expected graffiti has sent the budget soaring from £2m to £12m. Even so, it is hoped Mark Wallinger's White Horse of Ebbsfleet could do for this depressed industrial area what Gormley's angel did for Gateshead.

Down the A39 in Ilfracombe, the Verity effect is already being felt. "A midweek day in October is not usually very busy," notes Felicity Cowley from the Driftwood art gallery. "We've had loads of people in." Others will take more time to get used to the new arrival. "I feel very sorry for people who may have to look at it every day," sniffs hotel manager Sue Dale. To those struggling to see the point of Verity, perhaps the only consolation is that nothing lasts for ever: the statue is due to come down in 20 years. But if the brief history of public art has taught us anything, it is that even the doom-mongers will have got used to her by then.

Additional reporting by Daisy Stenham

Willow Man

Where The M5 near Bridgwater

Who by Serena de la Hey

When 2000

What they said then "One of the most visible of our Year of the Artist projects. People are already showing their appreciation. The Willow giant is something people of Somerset are going to be proud of."

Nick Capaldi; South West Arts chief executive

What they say now "I had no idea the council intended to build houses here, let alone a giant warehouse. As I understand, houses are going to be built on the north side of the Willow Man and Morrisons on the south. I envisaged him surrounded by fields standing out starkly against a flat, wild backdrop. To discover the council plan to surround him is very disappointing."

Serena de la Hey; Sculptor

Angel of the North

Where The A1 south of Gateshead

Who by Antony Gormley

When 1998

What they said then "It's awful. I'm more traditional. I'll never like it, but it is something we have to accept."

Maureen Abramson; Local publican

"It is probably the emptiest, most inflated, most vulgar of his works. It's said to represent an angel, but it more closely represents an old clothes peg."

Brian Sewell; Art critic

What they say now "It's a great symbol of the North-east. it's a sign to show that I'm actually nearing home."

Alan Shearer; Former Newcastle United footballer


Where Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Who by Maggi Hambling

When 2003

What they said then "We do not object to the sculpture, but it is in the wrong place and should not have been out there."

Peter Schrank; Organiser of petition against 'Scallop'

What they say now "On the beach it was revealed as a sculpture of scallop shells by Maggi Hambling, as ugly from afar as it is kitsch close by."

Charles Spencer; Critic


Where Ilfracombe, Devon

Who by Damien Hirst

When 16 October 2012

What they said then "We've spent hours, days and weeks preparing this application. I'm very hopeful it will get a lot of public support."

Steve Clements; Planning agent

What they say now "It isn't suitable for a Victorian seaside town. I think it's disappointing that the money and the ideas couldn't have been spent on a proper attraction to encourage people to come to Ilfracombe all year. I've not said we shouldn't have anything there, but I think the statue might be a two-minute wonder."

Sue Dale; Proprietor, Darnley Hotel

'B' of the Bang

Where Manchester

Who by Thomas Heatherwick

When 2004

What they said then "Its sheer size and scale can be appreciated for the first time, and the feats of design and engineering that have gone into its construction."

Tom Russell; Chief executive, New East Manchester

What they say now "B of the Bang was a magnificent artistic statement and it was regrettable that technical problems undermined that vision. The council reached an out-of-court settlement for £1.7m with Thomas Heatherwick Studio and three subcontractors employed by them. The sculpture was dismantled in 2009 and the core recycled, the council receiving almost £17,000 for the metal."

Spokesman; Manchester council, July 2012

White Horse

Where Ebbsfleet, Kent

Who by Mark Wallinger

When Date to be announced

What they said about design "Unlike other horses and figures carved into chalk downlands, this giant beast makes me cringe."

Adrian Searle; Critic

What they say now "This is a project that is meant to endure. Everything is proceeding well on the design front."

Anthony Reynolds; Wallinger's dealer


Where Cramlington, Northumberland

Who by Charles Jencks

When 3 September 2012

What they said then "Ridiculous. If we wanted something like this, why didn't we just ask Jordan to open a theme park?"

wayne daley

Councillor, in 2006, as the first application failed

What they say now "I'd rather have real countryside, not messed about."

Michele Gray; Local resident

"Walking over a reclining woman may not appeal to everyone."

Melvyn Bragg; Broadcaster

"One of the highlights of my life is being called a pagan pornographer."

Viscount Ridley; Landowner of sculpture site

Spike of Dublin

Where O'Connell Street, Dublin

Who by Ian Ritchie

When 2003

What they said then "It was felt to be a symbol of a modern Ireland."

Tony Duggan; Senior architect, Dublin Corporation

What they say now "If anything, it's a monument to the drug- dealers of the world since it looks like a hypodermic needle."

Bryan B; Tourist from New York

Arcelormittal Orbit

Where Olympic Park, east London

Who by Anish Kapoor

When 11 May 2012

What they said then "It is the most extravagant example yet of the idea that a big, strange object can lift tens of thousands of people out of deprivation. But the Orbit could mark the point at which it overreaches itself and we decide to try something different in the future …. Right now, it threatens to be an urban lava lamp."

Rowan Moore; Architecture critic

What they say now "We did not want to follow in a tradition of tower making, which is all about symmetry, from Eiffel onwards. We wanted to see if it was possible to make a truly 21st-century object. It's pretty obvious from the start that this is an odd object."

Anish Kapoor; Sculptor, 6 October 2012

Sawtooth ramps

Where M8, Bathgate, Edinburgh

Who by Patricia Leighton

When 1993

What they said then "We're committed to turning this section of the motorway into a positive attribute for Scotland."

David Jarman; Head of planning, West Lothian

What they say now "One of the coolest art projects I've ever seen."

Fergie and Fife; Blogger