Rebecca Farley, researcher in public art at Newcastle University, reviews this recently published book by British graphic designer, Scott King.
Public Art: Scott King
Scott King and Andrew Hunt (eds.)
Designers: Scott King and Fraser Muggeridge Studio
Softback ISBN 978 1 910516 01 0
Publication date: 2016
Publisher: Slimvolume, 176pp., 50 col., 50 b&w.
Public Art by Scott King offers a satirical polemic on the contemporary field and recent history of British and international public art practice. Part artist’s monograph, part graphic novel and part essay/interview collection, the book is structured around Scott King’s fictional proposals for a series of new ‘visionary’ public artworks.
Collected together King’s inventive ‘visualisations’ and artistic statements provide a damning critique of what could be termed the hollow promises of public art, and particularly the grandiose claims that are often made for its positive contribution to economic and social regeneration. There is also a good deal of critique here of our continuing national and international obsession with ‘Big Sculpture’ (as typically represented by The Angel of the North – in King’s world, transposed to London, where it stands moodily atop Nelson’s Column). King is also an incisive commentator on the cultural politics of England’s North-South divide – a subject addressed in the first of the book’s comic strips I Dream of Dalstonia, in which a band of London hipsters lead a cultural take-over of Teesside.
The book is divided into two main parts. The first, entitled ‘This England’ and the second more grandly, ‘The Internationale’. New projects proposed by King in ‘This England’ include: A Balloon for Britain where a series of multi-coloured giant balloons float (or perhaps wait to be popped) over the grainy black and white streets of Blackburn, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and other former industrial towns (fig.1); Blue Sky Thinking which posits the re-vitalisation of ‘ailing tourist sites’ through the siting of celebrity statues; and Market Driven, perhaps the most charming of King’s proposals, which suggests the introduction of optional diversity ‘identity’ lanes for drivers on the M1 (estimated cost, £2 billion).
In part two of the book King gets a little more ambitious, seeking to ameliorate the problems of a collapsing Europe through a collaborative sculpture, The European Monument of Unity (EMU) (fig.2). Illustrated in a series of calligraphic silhouettes, King’s EMU is a carefully balanced spire (planned height ‘702 metres’) made up of disparate sculptural ‘units’ each contributed by a different EU artist and sequenced against alternative metrics of national GDP, carbon footprint, immigration levels, or military strength. Looking more internationally King’s final ‘artist’s impression’ is for an even more gigantic Infinite Monument, this one a never-ending mirrored tower planted at the site of the legendary Tower of Babel. As art critic Jessica Dawson observes in this book, King’s Infinite Monument is an ultimate statement against the naivety and hubris of civic sculpture as a ‘cure’ for social ills. While architecture critic, Owen Hatherley, asserts ‘Every era gets the public art it deserves. That is, the works left over after a political moment that has changed have a tendency to speak exceptionally vividly of their time, of the things that a given era held dear and considered to represent itself’.
The theme of public art as a vanity project is pressed home elsewhere in King’s book, most strikingly in his lampooning of the two biggest names in contemporary British public art in the satirical comic strip, Anish and Antony Take Afghanistan (fig.3). Here we encounter the champagne-and cigar-wielding artist duo (Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley) helicoptered into Afghanistan (with the backing of President Hamid Karzai, David Cameron and Arts Council England) to rescue this war-torn country through public art and the glories of the creative economy. (As you might imagine in King’s comic strip this is a project that comes to a rather a bad end.) Meanwhile in another cartoon New York Rural, we find luminary artists Jeff Koons, Yoko Ono, Robert Indiana and Marina Abramovic fighting it out with a panel of business moguls for the prize of a new commission to celebrate the ‘Spirit’ of New York City. As imagined by King this makes for a fascinating and hilarious discussion – but one with rather a predictable artistic outcome.
Public Art is not all humour though, there is some serious contextual writing and historical commentary here too. This includes an illuminating introductory essay (with a satirical nod to Viz comic) by Owen Hatherley, and two interesting interviews on the current state of public art practice with cultural historian, Robert Hewison, and curator, Lynda Morris. The closing essay by the book’s editor, Andrew Hunt, provides a useful summing up of Scott King’s melancholic take on public art. As he puts it: ‘By colliding public art, fashion, and the politics of regeneration to encapsulate a self-defeating series of projects, Public Art emits a melancholy so profound that we’re left with a strange sense of optimism, one that come from the realisation we’re being told the truth about our world’.
For me, Scott King’s Public Art is a refreshing addition to the public art literature, offering something of an antidote to more advocacy-orientated or academically heavy writing on this subject. As well as appealing to existing fans of King’s work this book is probably of most interest to readers who have a good grounding in contemporary art and its politics and who are therefore best positioned to pick up on the many cultural and art historical references made in King’s graphics and in the book’s accompanying texts.
Main image: Artist’s impression of Infinite Monument, 2016, photographic print on paper 31.7×24.5cm. (photo: courtesy of Herald St, London)