Under the stone harbour arm in Folkestone stands a cast-iron Antony Gormley statue that looks out across the uninviting waves of the English Channel to the neighbouring White Cliffs of Dover. This solitary figure stands on the seaweed and moss-covered concrete enjoying his view until high tide comes and he is submerged in water again. At low tide, the public can walk down the slippery steps into the catacomb-like space and take in what he’s seeing. The statue, one of two in the town, forces those who choose to engage with it to reflect on their surroundings and look out to sea. It forces the viewer to stop for a few minutes.
Gormley’s statue is among 84 artworks by 44 artists to sit in Folkestone, itself a grumpy seaside town on the Kent coast. Turner-prize winning Lubiana Himid, Richard Woods and Tracey Emin are among names to have created a piece of work for the destination, as part of Folkestone Triennial, an art festival that changes every three years. The town was due to unveil a new set of works this autumn, but the pandemic has put plans on hold until 2021.
The reason I start with Folkestone in talking about the importance of public art is that the Triennial is the largest exhibition of newly commissioned work presented in the UK. Artists use the town as their gallery and to engage with their surroundings. In doing so they contribute to Folkestone’s spirit and identity. Public art has the capacity to put a place on the map (arguably Folkestone’s rising arts scene has contributed to its steadily growing popularity, particularly among visiting Londoners) and prove that it is a place worth travelling to, worth living in. It contributes to its individuality, and is a testament to its evolution. We know that if a place fails to evolve, it falls by the wayside and ends up in disrepair. At its best, public art can become a symbol of a specific city or place – Gormley’s Angel of the North is synonymous with Newcastle, and kickstarted the regeneration across the neglected north-east of England.
Even if a piece of public art becomes just a part of the background, that’s no bad thing. Long after the artist is gone, the art remains; it tells a story and offers a sense of time and place. After World War II, 41 sculptures by different people were created to bring public spaces back to life, to reinvigorate shattered, bombed towns. They became emblems of optimism, renewal and progress. You could argue that money spent on these works was better off elsewhere, but the truth is we need art. We need any medium that challenges the way we think or that serves as a counterpoint to existing power structures. It helps us to understand emotion and our history. It challenges our imaginations and fills our world with colour and escapism. Now, those monuments are Grade II listed.
We know public art is important otherwise it wouldn’t still provoke such debate. The statues of plantation owners across the UK and the US have become subject of heated discussion during the Black Lives Matter movement, with Bristol’s statue of slave-owner Edward Colston toppled by protesters in June. The Mayor of London has pledged to review every statue in the capital to ensure that they are representative of the city’s values. Public art reflects who we are; it is a document of the period we live in. It used to be the case that government-funded art was a way of quietly impressing state values, but as we’ve seen in recent months, that is changing. But while the masses have more input than they once did, ultimately it is still those in power who decide who and what to immortalise.
Street art and graffiti crucial present a crucial counterpoint – works made by ordinary people, who also decide what stays and what gets painted over or removed. I’m not talking about Banksy, a man who claims to be anti-capitalism but whom gamely profits from selling his work to the elite, offering a heavily commercialised take on the medium. As he said himself, Banksy turned to stencils because it made a picture of a bunny look hard, and put a hefty price tag on it. No, if you really want to know what the young people in any given city think and how they perceive the world, then look at what they paint on walls.
Don’t discard graffiti, which is often unfairly written off as vandalism. The difference between graffiti and street art is that the former is word-based and the latter is image-based, although sometimes graffiti incorporates both – it’s essentially calligraphy for the masses. Street art and graffiti is proof that a place has a creative pulse; it proves that artists with something to say live there. Only the most interesting, complicated cities have brilliant street art – think Athens, London, Berlin, Barcelona, New Orleans, Amsterdam, New York, Kingston in Jamaica – cities with personality and bristling with culture and thoughts. Street art and graffiti is the easiest way of tapping in the psyche of a place – and you don’t need to step inside an intimidating-seeming gallery or a museum to do it. It costs nothing to use your eyeballs and just walk around a city. Public art is inclusive and accessible.
Aside from the political messaging behind a lot of graffiti and street art, it is also just easy on the eyes. It takes a huge amount of skill to use a spray can freehand from a distance and create perfect proportions, original designs and expertly blended colour gradients. If you cast aside conscious or unconscious biases you might have around the people who create this type of art, it’s difficult not to appreciate the technical ability required to create high-quality street art and graffiti.
In a covid-19 world, the role of public art is even more important. Many of us still don’t feel comfortable using public transport, let alone going to white cube galleries, so public art - whether sculptures, photography, murals or graffiti – is our only way of engaging with art. The newly launched Breathe Is Invisible outdoor exhibition in West London has already showcased the work of Khadiya Saye, the acclaimed 24-year-old artist who tragically died in the Grenfell Tower fire, and is now spotlighting a soundscape by Martyn Ware, who describes his work as ‘sonic muralism’.
Such projects – and more long-standing London equivalents including The Line and Sculpture in the City – humanise a built area and create individuality in a world where places are becoming increasingly homogenised with matching high streets and housing estates. They also offer a platform for unsung or forgotten artists and the opportunity for people who might feel intimidated by a gallery to engage with their work.
Public art does something that no gallery can do. It can capture the eye and mind of someone just passing by; it can make us pay attention to our environment or change the way we think. We can’t always quantify the scale of the audience, but we know they’re there. The Angel of the North is seen by a different person every second, toting up to 33 million views a year. That’s not a statement of quality – I’m not saying that it’s a better piece than the Mona Lisa because it’s viewed more - but a statement of impact.
You can choose to engage with a sculpture or a mural or not; you might sneer at it or feel angered by it (and frankly it’s worth reflecting on anything that provokes such a strong reaction) or it might be something that lingers in your mind and tickles the brain. Now, in a world where indoor activities feel tarnished, they are places to visit that offer a break from relentlessly panic-inducing news updates and a reprieve from your makeshift home office. We could get on ok without public art, but the world would seem immeasurably duller.
Five of the UK's must-see public art works:
Another Place, Antony Gormley, Liverpool
North of Liverpool on the Merseyside coastline stand 100 cast-iron life-size statues spread out across three kilometres of the foreshore and walking out a kilometre into the sea, each staring across the waves. Gormley's statues are made from casts of his own body and are designed to explore man's relationship with nature.
2. A Bullet from a Shooting Star, Alex Chinneck, London
Alex Chinneck's artwork takes the form of an upside down electricity pylon, perilously position at an angle as if fallen from the sky. Despite being made of 15 tonnes of galvanised steel, the artwork is made to look weightless, balancing on a tiny tip - the results of a year's worth of arduous work and engineering. Positioned in the industrial wasteland between the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf in London, A Bullet from a Shooting Star is illuminated at night to become a beacon of latticed light.
3. The Folkestone Mermaid, Cornelia Parker, Folkestone
A life-size model of a Folkestone local, The Folkestone Mermaid first arrived on the rocks overlooking Sunny Sands in 2011. Cornelia Parker wanted to celebrate the everyday and ordinary, and placed an ad in the local paper searching for "a real person, a free spirit". Mother-of-two Georgina Baker was chosen and her cast looks out to sea, offering a more assured version of HG Wells' The Sea Lady.
4. The Panopticons, Lancashire
The Panopticons in Lancashire were designed to attract visitors to this picturesque part pf the UK, and they certainly cut an arresting juxtaposition against the bucolic countryside. Each of the four artworks offers impressive views over the surrounding hills and valleys, and some are visible from nearby motorways. The Halo (pictured) was the last to be created, resembling a UFO, and is lit up at night giving the illusion of floating above the neighbouring town of Haslingden in Rossendale.
5. Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel, Waterloo, London
The entrances to Leake Street might look intimidating from the outset, but walk through and you'll find walls used as a canvas by rising and established graffiti artists both from London and further afield. The city's largest legal wall, the tunnel has been heavily gentrified over recent years, with the opening of bars, restaurants and cafes inside the arches.
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