Saturday, September 15, 2018

On Public Sculpture

Over the last few years, I've been become fascinated by public sculpture. The fascination is hard to put into words, but I'm going to try.

What do I mean by public sculpture? Well, simply sculpture in public places-- excluding museums and art galleries. I mean all kinds of sculpture-- a cigar store Indian or a plastic Ronald MacDonald as much as a centuries-old bronze monument.

On the simplest level, I can express my fascination with public sculpture in three words: it's just there.

It's just there, on the street, or in the shopping centre, or wherever else it might be. Life is going on all around it. Someone might be looking at it, or nobody might be looking at it. Anybody can walk up to it at any time. In most cases, you can touch it and interact with it. It's part of the environment, of daily life. You're not even looking for it and suddenly-- there it is.

Why should that be so fascinating? Well, I can't exactly say. But it is to me.

Another reason I love public sculpture is because it's so anti-utilitarian. It sounds a bit negative, but I sometimes think "anti-utilitarianism" might be the core of my social philosophy. "Curtains make a house a home" is the sentence which sums this up for me. (I came across it in a ghost story as a child.) A statue fulfils no purpose except to commemorate, to beautify, to divert. As well as this, it's usually making some kind of statement, a statement of belief or ideals.

I'm rather fortunate in where I work, in terms of public sculpture. The Belfield campus has a surprising amount of them, many of them built in recent years. I'm on the committee that (among other things) plans the annual Library Staff Day, which mostly involves talks on library and general interest. A couple of years ago, I suggested a talk about the various pieces of sculpture on campus. It went down well, but I didn't hear it myself-- I can't remember why. Perhaps I was chairing another session (there are different "tracks" in the afternoon).

The above might be my favourite, and was very recently erected-- the Sutherland School of Law itself was built in 2013, so it's at least that young. It's called The Judgement. I like the drama of the scene it represents.

It brings to mind something else I like about public sculpture-- when they are representational, they suggest a whole backdrop, a context. These two figures obviously belong to another place and time, one which they carry with them as an invisible atmosphere-- and yet here they are, in the cold of twenty-first century Dublin.

I find a lot of sculpture creepy-- pleasantly creepy. Statues of human figures, or indeed of animals, always seem to me as though they are going to step off their pedestals. There is something abidingly strange in the sight of a figure apparently frozen in motion, stone or copper in the place of flesh and blood.

I'm not prejudiced against non-representational sculpture, though. This is a piece of sculpture I pass every work day. It stands outside the main restaurant in UCD, and it bears the name Iphigenia. I've read the text on the pedestal many times, but I still can't remember who Iphigenia was-- some chick in Greek myth, I think. I like it. I like how mysterious it is, how cryptic.

As one might expect, I have a particular interest in public sculpture on religious themes. A church is a public place for the purpose of my definition, but I'm more interested in religious statues outside church grounds.

Recently, I found this gorgeous shrine to the Sacred Heart in the Coombe, Dublin.

Ireland is dotted with shrines like this, many of them erected in the Marian year of 1954. I love these because they were erected, not by government or wealthy philanthropists, but by ordinary people-- and because they are so often located in very humdrum surroundings.

Being such a fan of statues, I'm very much opposed to knocking them down. I got some harsh criticism for supporting the protest in Charlottesville last year (at least, I supported the cause of the protest-- which was the removal of a statue of General Robert Lee). But I'm just as much opposed to knocking down statues of communists and other unsavoury types. I regret the toppling of statues to Lenin and other communist dictators that occurred when the Soviet Union fell (although I do understand the motivation).

I like the solution found in one case, though-- to transform ole Vlad to Darth Vader (not a huge stretch). This happened in Odessa, Ukraine:

Actually, I'm keen on statues of pop cultural characters. The fact that they are fictional makes their solidity and their presence in the real world more evocative. Here is a forty-foot statute of Optimus Prime, from the Transformers franchise, outside a car factory in Yunan, China.

Which in turn puts me in mind of this funny statue from Berlin:

Here's something I learned recently: most of the tallest statues in the world are statues of Buddha. And most of them were built recently. It's become a craze in the Asian world, to build massive Buddha statues, in order to attract tourists. Here is the tallest statue in the world: the Spring Temple Buddha in Henan, China, which was finished in 2008, and stands 420 foot.

But let's get back to Dublin. I remember myself and my brother being very intrigued by this statue of Socrates in the Botanic Gardens, before we even knew who he was. One is somewhat surprised to find him showing up here, the connection between Socrates and botany being an elusive one, at best. And yet, why not? As the kids say, "That's so random!".

Who's this fellow? That's me, that is! At least, it's one of the two High Kings of Ireland that have borne my name. It stands in Trim, County Meath. I've never been there, but I intend to go.

Perhaps the most impressive public sculpture in recent decades, at least in this part of the world, has been the Angel of the North in Gateshead. It's very striking even in photographs-- it must be an even more impressive sight in reality.

Finally, though I generally avoid anything gross and especially anything scatalogical (being of a fastidious nature), I can't help mentoning the "caganer" statues of Catalonia. These are statues of figures from nativity scenes which are...well, click on the picture, if you can't make it out at this size They are quite a venerable tradition in Catalonia at this stage. (And of course, once something earns the glorious term "tradition", I'm almost certainly going to be in favour of it.) Don't say you never learned on this blog.

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