The public debate on sculpture — 47 possible avenues

In 1995, Horst Hoheisel responded to a competition to design a “Berlin Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe” with a provocation. Blow up the Brandenburg Gate, he said, and the scorched earth would become a new Holocaust monument. Surely the artist thought it unlikely that the triumphal arch and the emblem of Prussian power would actually be razed. But his unfinished plan draws attention to the way public monuments so often follow the same script: unyielding obelisks and fluted columns, heroic figures on horseback. What if the act of remembering the past could be reduced not to the erection of another monument, but to its absence?

Monuments haunt us and are themselves haunted. The sprawling and cerebral exposure Will at the Goldsmiths Center for Contemporary Art – a former Victorian bathhouse in south-east London – offers a testing ground for 47 artists to create proposals that respond to the feverish debate around public sculpture. It comes the same month a man scaled the BBC Broadcasting House to carry a hammer to Eric Gill’s ‘Prospero and Ariel’ to protest the artist’s abuse of his daughters; ‘Colston Four’ activists were acquitted of damages for their role in the toppling of the slave trader statue in Bristol in 2020; a New York statue was removed that showed President Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse, flanked by two shirtless men of Native American and African descent.

© Rob Harris

Exploring the shamanic energy of monuments, Zadie Xa and Benito Mayor Vallejo’s trippy oil painting “Proposition for Earth Prosperity” (2021) imagines a tree sprouting from a conch shell and, perched on its branches, a fox , a seagull, an orca and a cabbage. A reference to a Korean totem, it is believed to offer protection against evil – the artists suggest sticking it in the Thames. Equally maximalist in imagination, Monster Chetwynd’s “A Monument to the Unstuffy and Anti-Bureaucratic” (2019) features a massive green foam beast on a wooden stage – a cartoonish monstrosity that seems to have leapt from the pages of books. a medieval manuscript but in whose toothy maw visitors can bask. Laure Prouvost proposes a study for a vault located in a country garden: nipples spring from the roof; bottles of hand sanitizer are placed in the walls. “Go through that door and be free from everything,” she promises.

Elsewhere, lying on a short white plinth, a dozing cat, its gray and white fur mottled and matted; the legs of the animatronic creature crawling on the edge. Text that accompanies Ryan Gander’s sculpture recounts a submission to a public art competition at a university in Bergen, Norway, in which the artist suggested that the budget be reinvested into an annual scholarship; Gander also stipulated that a Norwegian Forest Cat be brought into the college, allowed to roam at will, with the new researcher in charge of its care. The (unrealized) proposal shows how public art often fails to understand who its “audience” is in the first place. And if a monument do something for us? The artist Ghislaine Leung responded to this in her own way by filling a gallery with a giant inflatable pub.

‘I’d Rather Be Standing’ (2022) by Olu Ogunnaike © Rob Harris

Not everything is wacky free for all. Several patterns evoke feelings of melancholy and loss. In Olu Ogunnaike’s “I’d Rather Be Standing” (2022), pieces taken from the factory of a luxury hardwood supplier are crushed together, the shards of oak, ash and elm pressed into the form of the empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square, transforming it into a monument that seems precariously constructed. A video by artist Lawrence Lek imagines what a memory loss memorial might look like, riffing on the Greek myth of Nepenthe, a potion of forgetfulness. His film recreates a CCA gallery as a wacky video game space that constantly folds in on itself.

“Part and Proposal: Storr” (2021) by Tanoa Sasraku takes the form of an eroded map created by a reverse process of “constructive self-destruction”: the artist collected sheets of newspaper, rubbed them with an ocher red foraged on the Isle of Skye, dipped them in seawater, then cut them open to reveal undulating strata of the mineral pigment. Its fully realized form will trace the contours of the British Isles: a haunting anti-monument that evokes a sense of deep, geological time resonating beneath.

'Monument to Money Laundering' (2022) by Jeremy Deller
‘Monument to Money Laundering’ (2022) by Jeremy Deller © Rob Harris

The disconnection of the relationship between the form of the monuments and the body becomes the common thread of the show. Stuart Middleton dramatically unfurls a banner of sewn garments donated by friends, family and colleagues, a monument to everyday human contact flowing down gallery balconies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Price uses the fabric to imagine something darker: her curtain of purple, black and green satins is a veil to hide some statue. The artist was inspired by her Catholic childhood and how at Easter statues in churches were often draped in dark silks. Suddenly the sculptures became faceless – “alien, morbid, appalling” – she recalls.

The failures of the exhibition are in its most didactic parts. Jeremy Deller’s plaque, “Culture War Memorial” (2022), provides an obvious one-liner announcing “a memorial to family and friends who have been radicalized and lost to us by misinformation and conspiracy theories” that ” will take the form of a seemingly bottomless pit. Artist Yuri Pattison has acquired a disused Heathrow immigration control office; he squats in the middle of a gallery, ugly and useless, a monument to an imaginary future without borders.

Image taken from
Image from ‘A proposition for a perakeet’s garden’ by Adham Faramawy (2021) © Rob Harris

Better are proposals that elicit a more ambivalent response to building monuments. Adham Faramawy’s short ‘A Proposal for a Budgie Garden’ (2021) calls for ‘a monument for the displaced’ in apparent reference to the UK’s growing population of bright green birds that have been called by some a “savage” threat. The artist’s bird paradise functions as an atmospheric cipher for immigration-related anxieties. “Share the abundance your fathers stole. Let them come,” he implores.

A sculptor once observed to me that public monuments, although meant to suggest feelings of remembrance and reverence, are too often a means of forgetting, of carving memories into cold stone and of moving forward. . (Ten years ago, for example, how many Oxford students would have recognized the slightly crumpled man perched atop Oriel College, now widely known as the controversial Cecil Rhodes?). Rather than wondering if our renewed interest in these statues is part of “cancel culture,” we might rather ask ourselves: what was the purpose of the monument in the first place? Was it really a significant opening on the past or simply the symbol of an established order?

“Untitled: Hostage” by Phyllida Barlow (2022)

“Untitled: Hostage” by Phyllida Barlow (2022) © Rob Harris

As I turn to leave, I come across Phyllida Barlow’s “Untitled: Hostage” (2022): two stumps – scarlet gashed – smothered in a menacing black hood. The strange object is accompanied by heartbreaking text in which the artist recalls watching images with an Iranian student of a woman being stoned in his home country. The text captures snippets of panicked conversation as the artist realizes she is looking at a woman’s body “wrapped, wrapped and tied up.” She remembers being ashamed to witness the murder but being unable to look away. Here, the monument has taken root in people’s minds: haunting, threatening and eternal. Testament, indeed.

As of April 3,

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