perils of public art

Comment | The Perils of Public Art

Adam Somerset looks at the controversial “Iron Ring” public art that looks to alter the skyline of Flint.

I was once, a long time back, sent to Chicago for a couple of weeks of work induction. The city has one of the finest architectural heritages in the United States. The grandeur at the time was aided by an ordnance that demanded of developers a half percent levy of the budget for public art. That meant artists of the stature of Calder and Picabia, and the motive of the work was art.

Uniquely in the four nations of the United Kingdom the arts in Wales are stalked by the tourist interest. The guardians of culture lean its way despite the fact that the aims of art and tourism are at odds. There is plenty of good small-scale public art. I stop sometime to see Llywelyn at Llandovery, St Crannog on the Ceredigion cliffs or O.M. Edwards in Llanuwchllyn. But larger-scale public art has a background in Wales. Last year Machynlleth’s MOMA staged a debate over tourist slogans being dropped in National Park locations under the purported guise of art. Meredydd Barker wrote a play a few years back called Two Princes that revolved around a work of a public sculpture in a fictional town in Pembrokeshire. Peter Lord relates in his scintillating memoir Relationship with Pictures the grief that ensued over a public commission in Whitland.

So last week a large public art proposal was unveiled. Cabinet Secretary Ken Skates AM may well have praised the aesthetic values but it had no place in the BBC’s skimpy online report. Its purpose rather “is a perfect way of marking this significance while attracting more people to visit the site, bringing positive economic benefits to the area.” Meredydd Barker put into his fiction an eminent sculptor from Holland whose proposal met derision. The work intended for an improvement of Flint Castle has hit trouble. Given that a national treasure in the form of Cerys Matthews has weighed in it might well be big trouble.

In the BBC version the sculpture “could potentially stand 7m high and 30m wide” and “symbolises a giant rusted crown.” “It is said,” reports the national broadcaster blandly, “to represent the relationship between the medieval monarchies of Europe and the castles they built.” As to the monarchy in question it tells us that “Flint was one of the first castles to be built in Wales by Edward I – construction began in 1277. It was the setting as [sic] Richard II surrendered the crown to Henry IV – an event impacting the history of Britain and Europe.”

The work is one of symbolism. In the words of the designers: “The sculpture will take a balanced form, some buried beneath the ground, the remainder projecting into the air, to demonstrate the unstable nature of the crown.” The spokesman, who has the apposite name of King, says, “From afar its striking, iconic form resembles a giant ancient artefact washed up on the shore of the Dee Estuary.”

The problem is that the meaning of an artwork does not belong to the makers. The Arts Council of Wales plays with symbolism at its peril. “Agree that building an #ironring will remind future generations of Welsh children of their subjugation +this isn’t a positive thing #Flint,” says Cerys on twitter.

The local AM doesn’t like it, either. Llyr Gruffydd: “The London-based architects have specifically referenced the ring of steel in drawing up this design. The ‘ring of steel’ is the description given to the chain of castles across Wales that were built to conquer and subjugate Wales. The architects say this is to celebrate the Year of Legends but from a Welsh perspective, this is certainly not something to celebrate. It does not either reflect the many rich Welsh legends that could have been the source of a far more appropriate sculpture. The result of this ‘ring of steel’ and conquest by Edward I was to effectively make Welsh people second-class citizens within their own country. They were excluded from the walled towns that sprung up around the castles. It’s inconceivable that someone on the panel deciding on this matter would not have understood the symbolic significance of a sculpture that ‘celebrated’ our conquest.”

Petitions are many in cyberspace and the twelve hundred signatures accrued by the one in protest to this is not a big number (at the time of writing – that number may change, of course). Social media on the subject of the ring is caustic but that is the nature of the medium; sourness is its norm. The project may go ahead quietly and the issue may well slumber. Maybe it will be cause for assault and desecration. But Gruffydd has a point. It looks like a committee decision from a far-off place with a deficient view of the power of art and not a lot of knowledge of Wales. A wise old owl of a historian at the helm of the Arts Council of Wales would have read this at a hundred miles distance.