A Word Like Ouroboroi

Turn down the road next to Baker street tube station and walk up to Regents Park. Despite the fact that it’s less than a week from Christmas, the weather is sunny and warm and there’s not the slightest hint of a snowflake in sight. It seems like a good day to take a walk in the park and get an al fresco art fix in the form of the Frieze Sculpture Park which, a helpful email has reminded me, is sitting there waiting to be looked at until it gets dismantled in mid-January.

Sauntering through the Park I can see lots of grass and trees but no lumps of stone or metal so I take a pause on a bench and backtrack through the emails on my mobile to find the one from Frieze. Apologies to anyone who was strolling through the park that morning and happened to witness a man with a grey beard and a red face getting increasingly agitated and muttering a stream of expletives to himself while waving his phone around and stamping his boots on the ground. Suffice to say that, after a little local difficulty, I did finally manage to figure out how to download the app that told me where the sculptures were located. And, after a short walk, I even managed to reprise my schoolboy orienteering skills and find the first one.

Not only does the app give a little map showing the location of the sculptural octet, if you tap on the right place up pops a little photo of the individual work along with its title and the sculptor’s name. Tap another button and Clare Lilley from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, who selected the works, provides a brief audio guide. Fortunately I’ve brought along my earphones so I plug these in and, hey presto, I’m standing in front of Kathleen Ryan’s More is More Snake Ring listening to Lilley’s commentary. Naturally, I’m starting to get the urge to try to clamber onto the sinuous metal forms that encapsulates the entwined reptiles when, just in the nick of time, I spot the little sign stuck into the ground that tells me not to climb on the artwork – so I refrain. Initially I thought I was looking at a pair of ouroboroi but squinting more carefully I see that the snakes are actually in the process of eating each other’s tails and not their own. It’s a pity really since one gets so little opportunity to use a word like ouroboroi. It’s certainly not one that’s in Clare’s discourse, at least I don’t think it is. Evidently I’m doing something wrong with my mobile since her words keep cutting out after the first few sentences and I don’t really feel like I’m getting the full thrust of her in-depth analysis of contemporary sculpture.

No matter. I also have my shuffle machine with me and so give up on the talk and switch to the Beatles, with Here Comes the Sun providing an appropriate background score as I continue the short trail from one work to the next. With a bit of pre-planning I suppose you could download something bucolic like Beethoven’s Pastoral or, maybe even better, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in which case you could then dance around the sculptures with pagan abandon and enjoying your own personal gesamtkunstwerk.

The sculptures are a bit of a random mix of forms and styles, from the aforementioned fairly figurative, mildly symbolic snakes to one of Richard Serra’s minimal arrangements of large slabs of rusting steel, and from William Turnbull’s simplified, stylized female figure to Conrad Shawcross’ tree of geometric forms. I don’t think the curator is trying to make any particular aesthetic argument through her choice of works and nor, as far as I could see, is there any overriding thematic logic behind the selection or placement of the pieces. Doubtless, the Park authorities imposed constraints on where the sculptures could go and it’s a pity they’re all corralled into such a small area. The overall experience of strolling from one piece to another would certainly have been enhanced had they been placed throughout a much larger area of the park and it might have allowed more care to be taken over the siting of each individual work. As it is, they all seem to have been plonked down a bit randomly instead of taking into consideration how the position of one related to the others or, indeed, how each piece reacted with the background of trees, shrubs and grass. Nevertheless, despite these grumpy caveats, I’d still recommend a visit, as the experience of walking from one work to another, especially when the weather is so clement, is undoubtedly a very pleasant way to spend a morning.

After that excursion it’s time for a breakfast and, as it’s the season to spend money, I decide to be a bit extravagant and treat myself to something a bit more special than the usual chain-made coffee. So I take a walk down Marylebone High Street and go into Fischers which is a sort of faux-Viennese, turn of the century café, the kind for which the term café society was invented. I tell the maître d’ that I just want a coffee and a pain au chocolat and he directs me to a stool at the bar – it’s not the best seat in the room but then I catch a look at myself in the mirror and realise my hair has been disheveled during the park perambulations. I look a bit like the mad professor from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis so can appreciate why he may have wanted to keep me in the background. Oh well, it’s the price some of us have to pay for being tonsorially-challenged, and the man behind the bar is the model of old world courtesy, pretending not to notice as I desperately try to press my wayward strands back into position. On repeating my order, I’m quickly supplied with a linen napkin, a knife and fork and asked if I’d like a glass of water. ‘Why not? It’s Christmas, let’s go crazy.’ The man is so professional he even manages a weak smile at my attempt at seasonal jocularity.

Next comes the coffee in a proper coffee pot and my pain au chocolat, and the question arises as to whether I should make use of the cutlery that’s been so deliberately provided. I think it’s a trap – like one of those psychometric tests they use on undergraduate candidates trying to get into the upper echelons of the civil service. You know the kind of thing, they take you out to lunch and wait to see if you drink the water in the finger bowl or else they give you an artichoke and see if you eat the right bits. Well, I’ve been round the block a few times and I’m not going to be intimidated by this kind of nonsense, so I grab the pastry with both hands, tear it to bits and stuff as much as I can into my mouth, the way I always do. I like to think that I come from the sybarite school of gourmanderie and this is the way to get full enjoyment out of one’s food.

Against a background murmur of polite conversation, mingling with the clink of glass and crockery, I munch happily away, turn to the Guardian Review section literary quiz and pretend to tick off the answers. And at this juncture, I think it’s probably just about the right time to start my Christmas interlude prior to returning in the New Year.

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