Art for whose sake? Another Lottery sculpture looks down on Tyneside

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR A man with a pounds 600,000 Mark Di Suvero sculpture on his hands, Mark Arnott was remarkably unexcited, yesterday. It's a steel creation which landed at his Tyneside sandblasting yard in parts but he doesn't seem to be one for artistic appreciation.

"Our main source of income is oil rigs and platforms," he said. "This isn't so different." His men will spend a week gritblasting the sculpture and painting it in the artist's beloved orange/red mix before loading it onto a truck to Newcastle riverfront.

Since the sculpture Tyne Anew, bares close resemblance to a redundant crane when erected, it is not entirely out of place in this ship repair yard at Shildon. At Newcastle's Royal Quays next month though, it will become Britain's largest piece of public art, standing six feet higher than Antony Gormley's 65ft Angel of the North - the other famous local statue which stands on the A1 at Gateshead four miles away - and viewed by 600,000 ferry passengers on the Tyne each year.

Artistically, its arrival is a coup; the first sculpture in the country by Chinese-born American Di Suvero, whose huge public sculptures are internationally renowned. At pounds 614,000, it is slightly cheaper than the pounds 800,000 Angel and is funded from a pounds 3.5m National Lottery cash awarded to the former Tyne and Wear Development Corporation which has now brought 100 works of public art to the North-east.

From Darlington to Newcastle, you now can't help but fall over them. Tyne Anew will join 12 pieces on the Tyne riverside alone. South Tyneside boasts its own monster, Spaniard Juan Munoz's pounds 500,000 Conversation Piece, a composition of 22 brass figures, each 5ft 10ins tall who give the impression of being in conversation (their round bases have led to them being given the affectionate local nickname of "The Weebles".)

Sunderland and Newcastle also have a slice of that pounds 3.5m to commission their own "landmark" pieces so more giants will be on the way. There's also Darlington's huge Brick Train, which cost pounds 760,250 with pounds 570,250 coming from the Lottery.

"Yes, we must seem to have a fetish for the enormous," admitted Jenny Volkers of Art on the Riverside, which co-ordinates the way the pounds 3.5m is being spent. "But this is money set aside for arts projects. If we had not asked for it, it would be spent on other arts projects."

Not everyone sees things that way. Unemployment in some parts of Newcastle is 50 per cent and families are experiencing their third generation of joblessnesss. This week the city council launched a campaign to improve dire housing conditions (150,000 council homes stand empty) so you can expect eyebrows to be raised when Tyne Anew is erected.

Di Suvero says he wants to "add to this feeling of the past impacting on the present. The roots of shipbuilding and coal mining are important to the area and should never be lost sight of."

But Paul Rubinstein, deputy chief executive of Northern Arts agrees there is now a risk of "sculpture fatigue". "In fairness, there was strong consultation with local people over Tyne Anew," he said. "Maybe we need to move on, adding features to buildings and the landscape rather then introducing these big pieces."

In fairness, many of the North East's smaller pieces have done this. On the Tyne sculptors have been working with schoolchildren. And the Angel of the North offers its own colossal argument for the huge works."Mention Gateshead and people say, `yes, the Angel'," said Jenny Volkers. The Angel may also have had something to do with Tyne Anew's low-key reception. "There was a huge amount of publicity for the Angel. We could never top that," added Jane Pattison, manager of Art on the Riverside.