We tend to take public sculpture for granted. Most towns and cities have at least one monument to a great man or woman or a memorial to those who fell in the war. These fulfill an important social function and some are even beautiful to look at. Charles Sargent Jagger's Royal Artillery memorial at London's Hyde Park Corner is one of the most powerful and moving monuments in the world.
But there's an awful lot of very bad public art out there too. How many times have you walked past that stainless steel monstrosity in the city precinct, or that lump of misshapen granite plonked outside a big corporate office block, and vaguely wondered, "Who on earth put that there?" You might curse the artist, but a certain amount of the blame for bad public art has to be placed at the feet of the commissioning bodies - local authorities, government, corporations. Someone has to take responsibility for what kind of art goes where, but the number of things that need to be taken into consideration make it a daunting task both for the artist and those commissioning the work.
This is why the Royal British Society of Sculptors (RBS) recently launched a new public sculpture prize. Entitled 'FIRST@108' (after the Society's headquarters at 108 Old Brompton Road in London's South Kensington district), the award is designed to promote best practice in public sculpture. It will also help cement the RBS's position as the lead body for public sculpture in the UK, offering advice and specialist expertise to artists, public bodies and private organisations involved in the commissioning and making of public sculpture.
Last week I went along to the RBS at 108 Old Brompton Road to look at the four short-listed entries for the inaugural prize. The first thing you notice on the exterior forecourt is a striking painted bronze statue of a woman striding purposefully. This is not an entry for the RBS competition. It is Walking Woman by one of the UK's most established and gifted sculptors, Sean Henry, an exhibition of whose recent work is currently on show to coincide with the FIRST@108 prize.
Henry's striking figurative sculptures of anonymous working people have won him a broad international reputation in recent years and his innovative single- and multi-figure installations can be seen in a range of public spaces in the UK and abroad.
Henry's work will therefore have provided a rich source of inspiration to the four artists short-listed for the RBS award. They were: Robert Worley, William Clifford, Christine Lobb, Michael Shaw, and Matthew Simmonds.
Each year the FIRST@108 award will take a theme on which the entries must be based. The theme of the inaugural award was 'Interaction', which made Sean Henry's accompanying exhibition particularly apt since his own work is highly interactive. When placed in public environments, Henry's realistically painted figures become strangely magnetic focal points, drawing passersby into their orbit. People tend to stop and stare, recognizing something of themselves in the figures and yet acknowledging their difference, their otherness (Henry likes to play with scale, making his figures either larger than life-size or slightly smaller).
Interestingly, most of the works entered for the inaugural FIRST@108 award were abstract in form, save perhaps for Matthew Simmonds' marble amphitheater, and Avatar by Robert Worsley, which hovered on the threshold of figuration and abstraction.
Michael Shaw proposed a gently curving looping form which would be subtly animated by a light source responding to the ambient changes in the surrounding environment. As Shaw explains, "My practice seems increasingly driven by the accommodation of perceived paradoxes including: the singular form with both unity and variation; the invisible object; and explicit perceptual ambiguities. This has resulted in a shift from weight, mass, and opacity to space, light, transparency, and translucency."
William Clifford proposed a rigorously planned geometrical cube, with eight concave corners, the surface covered with a strictly planned mirrored grid. "I'm interested in the spaces between, the points of intersection. Where architecture meets artwork and artwork meets functionality," says Clifford. "The work I make seeks to address the ways in which we map and classify the world around us in order to understand it, and in doing so offers the viewer an altered perspective on the space they inhabit."
Christine Lobb's proposal involved a wire mesh net draped over a tall tubular space-frame in such a way as to create contrasting moods and visual effects depending on the time of day and available light. "A net may provide safety from falling, a barrier between us and danger or, conversely, we can become entangled in its web-like structure, caught and imprisoned," says Lobb. "Nets also describe movement and space, wrapping themselves around shapes or acting as a skeleton to create new forms."
Matthew Simmonds' proposal comprised a small classical amphitheater carved in marble, which drew on the implicit attraction of miniature worlds while at the same time referencing antiquity in an innovative way. Simmonds, a skilled stonemason, says of his entry: "Inspired by a life-long fascination with stone buildings, my work takes stone architecture, and particularly sacred architecture, as a central theme. The sculptures are part of a search to understand what sacred buildings are about, what gives significance to a space. In this way they are part of a personal inner psychological search and a research into the shared human condition."
Robert Worley drew upon the contemporary fascination with avatars, now a core component of many digitally-created virtual worlds. In the back of his minatory, birdlike form was a small recess into which was set a tiny human figure, stranded
like Prometheus on the rock face, vulnerable and alone. "Imagery of monstrosity has always been prevalent in my work," says Worley. "In part this comes from a love of the art of early history from all parts of the world. Much of my work is figurative and anthropomorphic, and seeks inspiration from the earliest sculpture from as far back as 30,000 BC. Found in caves and settlements across Europe and the Middle East, carved from woolly mammoth ivory or modelled from lime during the pre-pottery period, I see in these early creations a quest for identity, at a time when the boundaries between animals, humans and gods were less defined."
The winner of the award, announced on Thursday of this week, was Robert Worley. He now has six months to create a large scale version of Avatar for the RBS forecourt. He will be mentored through the process by an RBS Fellow and his work will eventually go on display at Canary Wharf in the City of London.
Like the rest of us, sculptors need to eat to stay alive and so it was good to learn that as part of his prize Robert Worley will also enjoy dinner for two, courtesy of the generous owner of exclusive French restaurant ‘Ambassade de l'Ile' close to the RBS headquarters in South Kensington.
Afterwards, a spokesman for the RBS said, "The most impressive and exciting outcome of this inaugural award was that George Iacobescu, CEO of Canary Wharf Group plc, announced yesterday that he would sponsor the award for another year." Indeed so impressed were the judges by the five submitted proposals that Canary Wharf Group plc and Mark Davy from Futurecity Consultants plc between them generously contributed an extra £1,500 for each of the four other short-listed sculptors.
In six or seven months time, as you stroll past the RBS, you'll doubtless find yourself stopping in front of Robert Worley's Avatar and murmuring, "Huh? Wow!"
Robert Worley's maquette for Avatar, which has just won the Royal British Society of Sculptors' inaugural public sculpture prize FIRST@108.
Matthew Simmonds' carved marble amphitheater, short-listed for the Royal British Society of Sculptors' inaugural public sculpture prize FIRST@108.
Christine Lobb's maquette in tubular steel and wire mesh, a proposal short-listed for the Royal British Society of Sculptors' inaugural public sculpture prize FIRST@108.
Sculptor William Clifford proposed this mirrored geometrical form for the Royal British Society of Sculptors' inaugural public sculpture prize FIRST@108.
Michael Shaw's elegantly looping abstract form, which was short-listed for the Royal British Society of Sculptors' inaugural public sculpture prize FIRST@108.
Walking Woman by established British sculptor Sean Henry, on display outside the Royal British Society of Sculptors' headquarters in South Kensington.