“Owning” public art

What makes a public monument? And what if the public doesn’t like it? We’ve seen recently many assaults on statues in the UK erected in another time to honour men – and it is, mostly, men – implicated in and often profiting by the practice of slavery. In other jurisdictions, we’ve seen the toppling of the graven images of dictators. Remember the excited crowds in Firdos Square, Baghdad, downing the statue of Sadaam Hussein in 2003? Or to go further back, the purging of public statuary that went with the glasnost era in the Soviet Union?

I remember being in Moscow in the early 90s and visiting a “fallen monument” site featuring the newly dethroned heroes of the revolution, at what is now the Muzeon Park of Arts. The decapitated heads and mutilated busts of figures such as Stalin, Lenin, Sverdlovsk and Zherzinsky, had been unceremoniously dumped in the open air. It was an eerie sensation to see these monumental stone figures physically broken and lying dismembered in the trampled grass of a public park. (The Muzeon Park of Arts now boasts a museum of over 700 such pieces which have been restored to their plinths. It is no longer a graveyard but a tourist attraction.)

But apart from that experience, my closest encounters with public art are the sculptures on the by-roads and motorways of Ireland . I love that large black golf ball at the Naas by-pass (“Perpetual Motion” by Remco de Fouw and Rachael Joynt), the encrusted bronze bull by sculptor Don Cremin outside Macroom, or the mock “ruin” of a Famine house on the M8 near Cahir (“Settlement” by Cornelia Konrad). Of course, these pieces of public art aren’t memorialising individuals. They are large public sculptures designed to be seen in passing so they must make bold statements. De Fouw and Joynt, for example, saw their giant golf ball as being “a light-hearted and distinctive landmark” for travellers.

Recently, I was at the launch of a public sculpture at Kildonan Park, Finglas, by Belfast artist Sara Cunningham-Bell. http://www.cunninghambell.com/#/ It is one of five public sculptures that Dublin City Council and Sculpture Dublin have commissioned for public spaces around the city. My interest in “The Bridge – Fiacha Dhubha Fhionglaise” (Finglas Ravens in Flight) stemmed from the fact that Sara was drawing some of her inspiration from Una Watters (1918-1965), a painter whose work I’ve been championing, and who was born, lived and worked in Finglas. See unawattersartist.com

As a result, I sat in on a few of the over 40 public consultations that Sara conducted prior to making “The Bridge”. Over the course of nine months, Sara met and talked with local people to discover what they wanted to see going up in Kildonan and how they wanted their area to be represented in the sculpture. The wish-list was long and varied – a recognition of the vibrant GAA heritage in the area, a tribute to local uilleann piper master Seamus Ennis and the 1920s aviatrix Sophie Pierce-Healy, as well as an acknowledgement of the work of community activists, the artistic energy of young people in the area, a nod to the local dog walkers. I wondered how on earth Sara was going to incorporate all these features, and create a piece that was also true to her artistic vision.

So did she?

The answer is a resounding yes, in my opinion. “The Bridge” is a seven-metre-tall steel sculpture comprising two figures with arms raised holding high a mirrored steel “river rug” inspired by the clear streamlet that gives Finglas its name. 

As you mights guess, it’s a compendium piece, punched (literally) through with symbols and motifs reflecting the artistic and cultural life of the locality – including, I was delighted to see, the figures of running schoolboys from Una Watters’ seminal painting, Cappagh Road, and a representation of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the symbol she designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

On the day of the public launch it was clear, however, that the sculpture not only represented the Kildonan community, but it spoke to them. Carved out of the steel shanks were profiles of local people, hand-prints of children, cut-outs of sports players. Both adults and children were excitedly pointing out images of themselves or their friends, or artistic motifs that they had contributed to the sculpture. “The Bridge” had become sanctioned graffiti but with a view to permanence. Here was a piece that was being “closely read” by the community it was designed for, while still maintaining an aspirational quality in the two soaring figures holding aloft the river banner.

Sara even managed to include the dogs! The silhouette of a patient mutt stands guard at the foot of the sculpture.

Furthermore, the sculpture is interactive – a bar code at its base will lead the visitor to further online information on all the various influences Sara employed in making the piece.

Which brings me back to those contested statues. Rather than tearing them down, wouldn’t this interactive route be a better way to go? A bar code for every historical statue. That way the casual viewer could find out why these figures were honoured in the past as well as getting a retrospective insight into what makes them dishonourable in today’s context.

Their destruction erases visible signs of history, which is almost like saying the injustices of slavery, colonialism and political cruelty never happened at all.

The Bridge by Sara Cunnigham-Bell at Kildonan Park, Finglas – I am standing in, purely for scale!

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