Removing Cecil Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes

Since the 1950s impassioned protestors have called for Rhodes to fall. In March the streets of Oxford were alive with remonstrations to tear down his statue that has stood on the front of Oriel College since 1911, while on the steps of the University of Cape Town another Rhodes effigy is boarded up awaiting its fate. But is to remove these likenesses nothing more than an act of cultural vandalism?

A mining magnate and believer of the ‘master race’, Rhodes was an unprogressive imperialist – a racist. He was, however, of his time. As a 19th Century businessman in South Africa, he advocated white supremacy, an ideology cultivated and embedded in his culture since Elizabeth I ordered Frances Drake out to sea in the 15th Century. Should we therefore pull down or deface every image, bust or statue of each imperialist to have marched spear-in-hand through our history?

The answer is: no. Rhodes should remain in his nook at Oxford. He is there to recognise an imperfect history and keep the debate of an inclusive culture very much alive in a world where inequality still controls and limits the lives of many.

Pulling down a statue is purely symbolic, and in some cases completely justified. Watching the bronze, over-sized statue of Saddam Hussein being ripped and toppled by the people was a powerful narrative of a dictator defeated. It was undiluted history in action. But consider for a moment if we were to leave some of the statues standing. Would these figures instead have become a far more potent symbol of freedom?

A freed society allowing the existence of these monoliths could look upon them as a reminder of what happens when power is shifted into the hands of the few. It mocks the powerful tyrant, turning his self-commissioned representation into an absurd caricature that can be ridiculed and enjoyed equally.

Personally, I find this liberating. The shift in context allows the figure to take on a much more artistic meaning. It is possible to appreciate the scale and precision yet remain bemused by the mindset of an era. The responses caused by this polemic shift of context would guarantee to have any former despot spinning in his grave. And, after all, our past will forever be our future.

Luke Webb

Public art in the UK

Knotted somewhere between the photocopy card and coffee shops that bead together the British high street are the polished chrome spheres or sleek stone donoughts. Parks, office courtyards and library facades, too, cannot escape a millennium-commissioned pinnacled cone, water sluicing its sides to try to trick passersby into succumbing to its presence. Ubiquitous and diluted, such public artworks are so easy on the eye they just can’t be seen.

At the other end of the artist’s palette are the full-bodied, ocular-assaulting public behemoths. Twenty-foot floating babies; skinned creatures; drunk bunnies; dogs urinating on five-storey office blocks; a twisted lead pipe abandoned on a roundabout. All unhidden, unavoidable but equally absurd.

The desire for function, sleekness, minimalism as well as something that will shock us out of a mundane existence is naively expressed through the polished baubles and giant figures that occupy our public spaces.

When Hirst pickled a shark, when Emin forgot to make her bed and collectors and gallery owners bought into their ideas of shock over substance, the art scene lost a great deal of authenticity. The artist sought celebrity and his work was reduced to nothing more than a bankable commodity.

The hysteria that envelopes such work is now outdated. The shock of seeing a dead animal or personal detritus – validated only by the work’s title – is as expendable as the throwaway materials used to make such works. Society no longer looks for the superfluous and instead there is a renewed hunger for permanence, beauty and most importantly authenticity.

A need for high-quality, credible public sculpture is emerging. Just as past fads now appear naive, the facile and sometimes absurd focal points of our public spaces will also be rejected. The artistic future for our urban streets and green spaces is sculpture that entices, interacts and reveals a story that the community can engage in. This can only be achieved by using genuine artistic talent.

Sarah Kiernan

Public Art Top 10

Discovering arresting art doesn’t always mean standing in line at the museum. Some of the best art by renowned artists past and present are available to all, for free and without the crowds. Streets worldwide are adorned with public art, many are ridiculed and dejected, most are prefixed with notoriety but a select few embellish their surroundings through storytelling or in-the-moment interactivity. Here are 10 pieces worth seeking out.

10. Angel of the North by Anthony Gormley (Gateshead, England, 1998)
This russet-winged figure surveys the North of England like an Orwellian Christ the Redeemer guarding our industrial heritage. Easily one of Britain’s most well-known works of public art and very much worth a visit to see the presence the Angel has, even if it is from the A1 like the other 90,000 who past it daily.

9. Mount Rushmore by Gutzon Borglum and Lincoln Borglum (Keystone, South Dakota, US, 1927-41)
Hewn and blasted out of the Black Hills of South Dakota, the scale and ambition of this sculpture is second to none. The four granite presidential heads show precision of form, especially the skilled visualisation of Roosevelt’s glasses and Washington’s collar. Another sublime example where successes of the past are immortalised in the drama of the present landscape.

8. Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor (Millennium Park, Chicago, 2004)
Unfairly criticized at first, this liquid mercury-inspired bean has quickly seeped into and warmed the hearts of visitors and locals alike. An elliptical sculpture made from a series of highly polished stainless steel plates that allow the work a multitude of functions: it reflects Chicago’s skyline, lightening the stolid skyscraper horizon, whilst the playful mirrored chamber lets people interact and see themselves and others from different perspectives.

7. Digital Orca by Douglas Coupland (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 2010)
This über modern sculpture swiftly sparked reaction and has fondly been monikered ‘Lego Orca’ and ‘Pixel Whale’. Forged from powdered coated steel cubes, Coupland deftly captures a leaping Orca while its pixelated appearance comments both on the natural supremacy of the harbour where it sits and the technological advances shaping the region.

6. Rabbit by Jeff Koons (1986)
Koons’ art is perfectly suited to the public realm. His reworking of kitsch everyday objects wittily merges high and low culture and with help from the finest artisans he’s made tacky desirable and his trademark. A temporary work once revealed bobbing along Manhattan’s gorge-like streets, ‘Rabbit’ succeeds in being both credible and accessible: the whimsical child toy a comment on the spiraling consumerism of the decade. Koon’s influence on the art world in the 80s and 90s is unmatched.

5. Christ the Redeemer created by Paul Landowski, built by Heitor da Silva Costa (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1931)
Perched at the peak of Corcovado mountain, is a sculpture of hyperboles. Engineered from reinforced concrete and soapstone the figure is the largest Art Deco sculpture in the world and fifth biggest statue of Jesus. However, it is not just its size worth meriting but Landowski’s ability to create an iconic emblem that holds power among the verdant hills and seascape of the city where it could easily be lost.

4. Wrapped Reichstag by Christo and Jean Claude (Berlin, Germany, 1995)
The temporary wrapping of the German parliament building demonstrated how a conceptual artist of Christo and Jean’s calibre can create an awesome public art spectacle and more than that – a cultural event. The covering revealed the building’s underlying true form; the billowing aluminium-coloured fabric transformed the indestructible 1930s Third Reich architecture into something ethereal and a celebratory symbol of new Germany.

3. Balzac by Rodin (Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris, France)
The immediacy and raw treatment of this figure of French novelist, Honoré de Balzac, is what makes this sculpture so alluring. From afar it holds a phallic shape; up close you can feel the speed and dexterity of the sculptor where Rodin has thumbed the clay into a modern masterpiece. This is 20th Century impressionism in 3D.

2. Maman by Louise Bourgeois (Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden from January 2015)
A motif for all things maternal, this nine-metre spider teeters on eight slim steel legs allowing the viewer to pick their way around and beneath its martian frame. Under the body a cluster of 26 marble eggs reinforce the notion of nature and protection. An ode to Bourgeois’ mother, a weaver, the arachnid demonstrates how the personal can resonate in all. Originally open to all at the Tate Gallery Hall in 2000, it can now be seen in Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

1. Burghers of Calais by Rodin (Westminster, London, UK, 1889)
A virtuosity of human form, Rodin again manages to express the fragility of the human condition in the hardest of mediums: dark bronze. Commemorating an episode in the 100 Years War between England and France, the six surrendering figures with their oversized bare feet, tattered robes and rope-bound necks express individual emotions of pain, melancholy and pathos of their self-sacrifice. Posed with eyes half closed, hands grasping heads or simply staring at the earth the figures invite the viewer to circle the monument, as if bystanders to the event. ‘The Burghers of Calais’ affirms how Rodin evolved the lone static statue into sculptural storytelling.

Luke Webb, Sarah Kiernan

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