Visual Art: Selling sculpture by the pound

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The Independent Culture
Aconspiracy, perhaps. Well, it looks like it might be. I mean, when a sculptor, a conspicuously dreadful sculptor, seems to have a city pretty well on a plate, one naturally starts speculating about old chums, blood ties, kickbacks, funny handshakes and knowing where the bodies are buried. Oh, but let me withdraw those remarks unreservedly. I have no conspiracy theory to offer. I have no evidence at all. I am sure that there is a perfectly innocent explanation. And I certainly wasn't for one moment thinking of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi and the city of Edinburgh.

Sure, Sir Eduardo's work is all around Edinburgh. Edinburgh was his birthplace, 75 years ago. One may presume an element of local favour. But then, his work is even more all around London. There are three public pieces in Edinburgh (plus some works in the new Museum of Scotland). But there are five public pieces in London - most recently, the variation on Blake's Newton outside the British Library - and six if you include the mosaic decorations to Tottenham Court Road tube. It's everywhere. And if Sir Eduardo were really the centre of a vast web of intrigue, that would at least lend an air of romance to the facts. But I fear the innocent explanation is the true, and the much sadder, one.

Namely: that often as not, the patrons of public sculpture simply haven't got a clue. They have power, but no eye and no idea. They look at these great bronze pile-ups of machine and body parts and they genuinely cannot see an oppressive and stupefying monumentality as it stares them in the face. Actually, they probably like it. They only wanted an imposing lump in the first place. A lump Sir Eduardo will certainly do you. His remarkable achievement has been to take Surrealist collage, and to eliminate from it all wit, sex, surprise and menace, to serve it up cold and stodgy. And his works have other qualities guaranteed to appeal to the clueless commissioner of public art.

They mean nothing. That is crucial, because any specific meaning is liable to cause somebody offence, and so must be avoided. On the other hand, they're rich in gestures that satisfy the vague ideals of the average public brief. They feature the human figure. That is good, it is Humanity, we are still much in favour of that. But these figures are variously fissured and fragmented, and that is Modern, and we definitely wouldn't want not to be. What's more, they're diagrammatised, anatomised, slotted together with mechanical, geometrical and biological elements, and that is Science and Intellect, which are very important things (bridging the "two cultures," you see). And there's the odd reference to older art, which is Our Cultural Heritage, and very important too. Sir Eduardo's sculptures provide much the same service as Henry Moore's once did. For those who just want something, they seem to have everything.

It's all very unfortunate. These disastrous works are now ill placed and will presumably remain so for ever. We frequently knock down buildings, we almost never get rid of public sculptures. Too bad. But the idea that, over and above this legacy, Paolozzi should require a personal monument, a museum largely dedicated to him, an actual Paolozzarama, surely beggars belief. Well, all right, it doesn't. Anyway, it opened in Edinburgh last month.

The Dean Gallery is directly opposite the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It's a restoration/conversion of a sober Greek Revival building with crazy chimney towers - originally the Dean Orphan Hospital. Its dorms and schoolrooms are now exhibition spaces (plus shop and cafe). Quite a few original orphan features are retained: note the shoulder-high safety banisters on the stairwells. And though everyone's struck by the discrepancy of grand facade and limited indoor volume, gallery- wise there's potential here.

There's some perfectly fine art in it, too. One of the downstairs rooms now houses what was the Modern Art Gallery's Surrealist collection, good Miros and Magrittes, a cute Edward Wadsworth. Upstairs, the rooms are for contemporary art shows - currently, the Andreas Gursky photos that were at the Serpentine Gallery earlier this year. Sounds OK so far, I hope. But it would give a truer impression to say that although there are points in the Dean Gallery where, if you keep your gaze firmly fixed before you, you cannot see any work by Sir Eduardo, there aren't many. There's not just a lot of it. Its presence is pervasive and structural.

The Paolozzi Gift, "generously presented" by the artist - who wouldn't give generously to their own memorial? - consists of: Vulcan, a two-storey- filling robot thing; another variation on Blake's Newton, (below) as the centrepiece of the cafe; a room full of his electro-turd sculptures from the Fifties; and a reconstruction of part of the artist's studio, shelves of plaster casts of all sorts of objects made and found, of feet, heads, gizmos, toys, model replicas of famous statues, the artist's talismans and ingredients (awaiting combination and enlargement into one of his street monsters). And you may be thinking, all this stuff could simply be removed, couldn't it? Placed out of sight somewhere, and then the gallery would be all right?

Not so simple. These plaster casts proliferate, infiltrate themselves throughout the building. The place has literally been remade for them. Wherever you turn there's a cluster of them, in nooks, up on ledges, through optics. Take the stairs and notice an opening in the floor, glassed over, as if there was an archaeological remain beneath: there's a bunch of them there. Upstairs, look under your feet: there's a transparent roundel with more inside. Everywhere, the knick-knacks of Paolozzi's creativity. We're to feel we're inside his imagination's shop.

This isn't the worst of it. The worst of it is that the whole gallery is designed as a magic grotto cum fancy boutique, where - mediated by these ubiquitous knick-knacks - souvenir and artwork become indistinguishable. All around the downstairs are columns of elegant glass display cases, lit by micro-lights, as you might find in a posh jeweller's, all alike. Some hold expensive merchandise, a "Miro" mug, a "Cocteau" paperweight; some hold tribal objects collected by the Surrealists; some hold sculptures by Ernst and Giacometti; some hold more Paolozzi tat.

The Surrealist paintings themselves are hung higgledy-piggledy up the walls, to discourage particular attention, to create a general spectacle of oddities. Everything is levelled into a culture-curio. This isn't a place for looking at art, but for going ooh and ah, for getting - I've not seen it done so explicitly before - an art-experience. Bad. Bad.

For good, go to Dundee. Dundee Contemporary Arts opened last month too. Of course over the last year or so, there've been a lot of these openings, as the first fruits of the Lottery came through. Most of them have been either revamps, like the Serpentine in London, or conversions, like the IKON in Birmingham. This is purpose-built and it really shows. I suppose there isn't as much literal volume here as in either of those buildings. But the two main Dundee galleries managed to carry a startling amount and variety of works, without them crashing into each other - the point of the very miscellaneous opening show, Prime, was evidently to show this capacity off.

Offhand, I can't think of many more desirable contemporary exhibition spaces in Britain. Everyone always claims to like the historical weight and resonance that come with a recycling job: "Did you know, this used to be an old sock factory?" It's nice to know that new still works.

The Dean Gallery: 73 Belford Road, Edinburgh EH4; 0131-624 6200. Dundee Contemporary Arts: 152 Nethergate, Dundee DD1; 01382 432000