A year ago (2014) some public art, ‘Dad’s Halo Effect’ by Ryan Gander, was bolted to the pavement in Beswick, a mile east of Manchester centre in an area formerly the blackest in the city but now home to a football stadium, a cleaned up canal and some ad hoc metal warehousing. ‘Regeneration’ is the long word repeated about these parts by suits who wouldn’t be caught dead living anywhere near the place.
As is customary with works imposed on the rest of us by State Art’s (the Art’s Council. ed.)usual suspects, the price of £341,000 induces disbelief that so little materially and visually, could cost quite so much. It was paid for by the Corporation using £1.7 million refunded when this hapless locality’s previous ‘sculpture’, Thomas Heatherwick’s ‘B of the Bang’, was demolished due to a combination of design failure and cowboy fabrication. Conditions of European grants the council received in order to buy ‘B of the Bang’ in the first place determined that the money couldn’t be spent for any other purpose (something more useful perhaps) than public art.
Beswick was a place familiar to me in the 1950s, though now unrecognisable. I loved the sounds, smells, bare flames and shunters of its poisonous industries, and on many weekends was forced to endure its world famous (round here at least) Beswick Prize Band. Since those times roads have been widened, street plans re-jigged and railways ripped up. Unused expanses of nowhere now gape where once big things were made and myriads were housed nip-and-tuck around infernal workshops. All the Victorian heavy industry, gasworks, colliery, BICC and assorted aero, loco and engineering works have gone. As with the rest of Britain, they make nothing here any longer, excepting flannel. The very place that moved an angry Engels to demand decency for all, now inspires only the municipal rhetoric that ‘things’ are on the way up – when clearly they are not.
I could stand alongside ‘Dad’s Halo Effect’, look south along the route of the old 53 bus, and, if it hadn’t been slum-cleared in 1969, have seen the house where I was born. Every surface soot black, no one would have then chosen to live here. It was a dangerous, noxious place where industries were labour intensive and most men enjoyed job security of a sort that can only be dreamed of by workers now. It was, nevertheless, also a place where people in full employment for life died poor, often when still young. My great grandfather was killed in the Beyer Peacock coach works just over Ashton Old Road.
Within two hundred yards of Gander’s shiny sculpture a few ‘Coronation Street’ style houses of Victorian vintage still remain from that era. Adjacent, are other streets of more recent jerry-built construction which are already down-at-heel and visibly approaching premature obsolescence. Here live people whose lives, it is claimed, are to be given hope and “a source of inspiration” by a sculpture whose reason for existing most recipients of this council largesse couldn’t begin to explain or understand. To claim that such a work will cause optimism in those with no knowledge, interest or appreciation of conceptual art is the sort of arrogant insult only a self-absorbed, iron-clad establishment thoroughly indoctrinated by the likes of Serota could get away with.
Gander’s work is said to represent three chess pieces in a checkmate position, but even those with a kid’s knowledge of the game will realise this analogy is a desperate clawing for an explanation. They more resemble salt and pepper pots from a designer bistro in Brobdingnag.
The form it takes, they say, is to do with Gander’s father fitting steering mechanisms to Bedford vans in a Merseyside car factory. This was apparently an important symbolic episode in the artist’s childhood, though why anyone else should be interested in this quaint autobiography remains a mystery. This alleged connection, however, allowed the sculpture’s commissioners to relate the work’s inspiration to Beswick’s past, claiming that it “honours Manchester’s industrial heritage”. Such tenuous associations become crucial justifications in pieces where, visually at least, there is no apparent relationship to the past or future of anywhere or anybody. As in other areas of State Art, far-fetched claims are repeated until those lectured are bludgeoned into accepting such nonsense as fact.
Formally the work is stillborn, dead from the neck up, and can’t even boast the redeeming advantage of being admirable solely for its visual qualities. There is nothing about it in any way to suggest it is the work of “a world-renowned sculptor”. In State Art bold assertions are considered incontestable yet never survive close independent scrutiny.
Reflective surfaces, whether they belong to corporate headquarters or sculptures by ephemerally fashionable operators, always signify inner emptiness. They look uncritically outwards because nothing substantial lives inside. Reflective is the chosen finish of any ethos terrified of having its patination of respectability investigatively probed.
Considerable fanfare accompanied the sculpture’s unveiling at which State Art’s B-team of panjandrums obsequiously congratulated one another, no doubt in the hope that few would notice they were uttering outrageous falsehoods about something so obviously unexceptional. Some of these lies were risibly self-defeating, not least the one about the work being “a globally admired sculpture” even before anyone had actually seen it. This species of presumption is also common in State Art, where everything is a masterpiece even before it’s hit the drawing board. I won’t cite here all the repeated exaggerations of assembled councillors and cultural fixers at the unveiling. They were ridiculous then and sound even more ridiculous now, especially when the work has so quickly lost its lustre and dissolved into the soulless anonymity of daily life.
As chief State Art gauleiter in these bleak parts, Maria Balshaw, a former lecturer in ‘cultural studies’ at Northampton University and now director of Manchester City Art Gallery and the Whitworth, is chief cheerleader and apologist for this sort of crap. She declared the piece “a fantastic addition” and pronounced Gander not only the aforementioned “artist of world renown” but “the most important sculptor working in Britain today”. If there is a visual basis for these preposterous assertions it is not apparent in ‘Dad’s Halo Effect’.
What everyone listening to such bilge needs to remember is that ex cathedra declamations like Balshaw’s are not statements of fact but utterances of creed. These people are blind believers. For those sold on the religion that is State Art, everything has to be superb beyond criticism. No room exists for even modified dissent, or doubt, or the whole edifice of faith upon which State Art is built collapses to the ground. The unquestioning commitment of the State Art congregation is the only thing keeping the structure upright. State Art’s main function must always be to encourage seeing more than the uninspired reality that is presented to your eyes. It’s job is, therefore, to confuse and bewilder the unversed in order that an unexceptional stunt of superfluous street furniture might be presented as though it were the modern equivalent of the Rondanini Pieta.
But look at it. Just look at this piece abandoned in no-mans-land by a pelican crossing on the dual-carriageway drag between Ashton Old Road and Rochdale Road. It doesn’t look as though it’s by the best sculptor in Droylsden let alone Manchester, or even Britain. It doesn’t even look like the work of a sculptor at all, for there’s nothing discernibly sculptural about it.
Outside the protective blanket of the gallery and its support system of public cash, State Art is vulnerable for all to see. Abandoned there in the open air it is stark naked and meaningless, dangerously susceptible to objective truth, it’s failings blatant.
So how come they get away with it so often?
David Lee trained as an art historian. He was the editor of Art Review and now runs The Jackdaw, a polemical art paper, which he founded in 2000. He has contributed to newspapers and magazines and has made popular television series for ITV and BBC2.
Volume 30 number 5, May / June 2016 pp 22-24