Public art landmarks: Iconic or eyesore?


Public art landmarks have been popping up throughout the UK in recent years, especially since Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North was erected in 1998. After referencing a similar piece that I find rather enchanting, one of my Content Team colleagues pointed out that she has a rather different opinion of it, which regrettably is not fit for publication!

It led me to wondering if there was more to these spectacular commissions that have started to litter the landscape of the UK than meets the eye. I mean, somebody other than the artist must like them right?

So I started with something quite close to home and did a little looking into the Angel of the North.

Angel of the North, Gateshead

Photo by David Wilson Clarke

Although the Angel of the North swiftly became an iconic symbol of the North-east of England, and most people will know what it is and where, I wonder if it’s famous or infamous?

When it was first erected, the Angel was greeted by a lot of criticism.

“Gormley’s figure is said to represent an angel, but it more closely represents an old clothes peg and a foot rule…” The Mail on Sunday.

I remember hearing one individual extolling its virtues, claiming it would look brilliant when it was oxidised and finally finished. His opinion soon changed when someone explained that oxidized meant they were going to let it rust!

As it turns out, the vision for the Angel was to present a sculpture that was abandoned between the industrial and information ages, bearing testament to the men who worked in the dark below the very surface it stands on:

“The angel has three functions – firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears.” – Antony Gormley, sculptor.

My own opinion on the aesthetics aside (surely it’s just scrap metal?), the Angel is a very real connection to Gateshead’s historical legacy.

Keeping close to home I moved onto researching Arria, the mesmerizing 10m-tall mermaidesque statue that overlooks the A80.

Arria, A80 Cumbernauld

Photo by Steve Lindridge

Arria was created by Glaswegian artist Andy Scott to improve the image of Cumbernauld, which was crowned with a Carbuncle award for the second time in 2005 for being one of the most dismal places in Scotland.

You might wonder what a mermaid called Arria would have to do with the place. Some 70,000 commuters drive the A80 every day and I’d expect that only a minority of them are aware that Cumbernauld in Gaelic, ‘Comar nan Allt,’ means ‘the meeting of the waters.’ A very potent reason indeed to have a mermaid at the roadside of a busy motorway seemingly miles from its typical habitat.

Even her name, taken from Arria Fadilla, the mother of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius who ordered the construction of the Antonine wall that lies only 2 miles away from the town, links her more strongly to her surroundings.

So while at first glance Arria may appear to be just a beautiful, but slightly out of place sculpture, she is actually is a strong reminder of the rich heritage in the surrounding area.

Finally I looked into a new sculpture, Horse at Ebbsfleet, which was designed by Mark Wallinger and is due to be finished in 2012.

Mark Wallinger's White Horse at Ebbsfleet

Photo courtesy of Countryside Properties

Already widely known as Kent’s ‘Angel of the South,’ Horse is supposed to highlight the Ebbsfleet’s redevelopment area and Ebbsfleet International railway station. Like every other landmark of it’s kind, it divides public opinion:

According to Mark Hudson at The Telegraph, the design for Horse was hailed with “immediate, near universal approval, not only from the local people who selected it from five designed by leading artists, but among the population at large.”

According to comments on one of the BBC’s articles however, the real opinion is more varied, with many people suggesting that it would be acceptable if it was like the Invicta horse, which is a key part of the county’s official coat of arms.

“Unlike the White Horse on the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, or other horses and figures carved into the chalk downland, this giant beast is just silly. It makes me cringe.” – Adrian Searle, The Guardian.

Horse actually has a Facebook group with over 2000 members deeming it a waste of money, trumping the supporting group that has just over 50 members.

So did the public choose Horse because of the similarities to the Invicta on Kent’s emblem, or just because it was the best of a bad lot?

What do you think? Have you got any more examples of stunning landmark sculptures or perhaps ones you wish hadn’t passed planning permission?


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4 Responses to “Public art landmarks: Iconic or eyesore?”

  1. Shannon Says:

    Great post, Emma. I think if the horse were a bit less realistic it would be better – but the way it is, it’s just a bit scary: like a giant equine invasion!

    Makes me wonder what the public reaction was in relation to the historic giant works when they were being built – various Buddhas, the Sphinx, the Colossus.

    Obviously it was a different world back then and the works had a different purpose. But these older items are valued today as pieces of art/culture – will any of the new works fare so well in 50, 100 or even 1000 years’ time?

  2. Benedikte Ranum Says:

    Nice post, Emma! …and interesting point, Shannon. As with most famous artworks: the more derision from contemporaries, the more valued by successive generations? (Look at Edvard Munch…)

    I’ve got lots to say on this one, but for the moment I’ll restrain myself 😉 and simply declare that I’m firmly in “Camp Gormley” as opposed to “Camp Page-3-Mermaid”…

    What do the rest of you think? Any controversial pieces of public art near you?

  3. Emma Garrell Says:

    Thanks guys :). Very interesting point Shannon, I’ve never really thought of those as landmark sculptures before. Mind you, I’m not sure that the ‘public’ was allowed an opinion in the days of the Sphinx and Colossus ;-)!

    I admire your restraint Benedikte. Prime example of my point though, we could argue it till we’re blue in the face but I’d still have the metal mermaid over the rusty clothes peg any day :).

  4. Benedikte Ranum Says:

    The good thing is that public art does get people to sit up and take notice, whether they like it or not. Spirited debate is always preferable to apathy!

    Have a look at this post for more “love it or hate it” public artworks:

    You may not be surprised to find that an icy lump of concrete by a remote fjord is my idea of good public art…

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