Head down to Liverpool Street tube station where exiting means first entering the bustling overland station concourse, at which point the innocent traveller is confronted with the choice of the two diametrically opposed stairwells that lead up and out on to street level. These are situated at either end of the long narrow nave of this secular cathedral structure but – and it irritates me every time I ever find myself in this place – there’s no obvious indication of which end to walk towards. The station signage is so irritatingly arranged that it’s only after having traversed a couple of hundred yards – and reached the point where the escalators that will lead out into the sunny surrounding uplands are finally coming into sight – that the small signs appear that announce arrival at either the Bishopsgate or the Broadgate end. And, of course, if you do pick the wrong direction when setting off then it means that it’s necessary to grudgingly retrace all those many steps back to the start and then carry on out the other way. Well, it’s a fifty-fifty choice and karma is evidently on my side today as I do indeed fortuitously make the right guess and find myself on Bishopsgate where, faced with another bilateral dilemma, I flip an imaginary coin, look left and turn right which, defying the usual odds, turns out to be the exact correct direction of travel in which I am meant to be walking.
Part of the cause of my geolocatory problem is that I seldom have cause to venture out into this part of town since it’s almost entirely devoid of any of the kinds of museums or galleries that I tend to scout about. In fact, the so-called City, the financial hub of the capital into whose chilly embrace I’m about to enter, is all a bit of a desert when it comes to matters of cultural concern. I don’t think there are any serious commercial art galleries in this area at all and public spaces, like the Barbican and Whitechapel Gallery, are very much on the fringes of a location that is, after all, much more concerned with the dark arts of money making rather than any of the more enlightening arts of aesthetical expression. There is one exception to this topographic rule and that’s the Guildhall which hosts occasional temporary shows (I’ve not yet got around to visiting the current one about how artists have portrayed London’s architecture) as well as having it’s own permanent collection that is, as one would hope, on permanent display. And while I don’t think there are any really great masterpieces here, entry is free and there are some good (and several quite reasonable) works of mainly British Victoriana, the best of which are the characteristically entertaining pictures that the likes of Leighton, Millais and Rossetti produced to decorate the salons, soothe the sensibilities and occasionally titillate the fantasies, of their wealthy clientele.
Anyway, I’m not actually going off to the Guildhall now but mention it because it’s here that they make available free copies of the little booklet guide to the Sculpture in the City art trail and, having acquired one of these already, I’m now going to use it to help me circumlocute today’s cultural jaunt. I think it’s almost certainly possible to get an online version of the relevant route diagram but, being an old fashioned sort of an analogue pedestrian person, I prefer the tangible comforting surety of having a hard copy publication in my hand rather than relying on a digital mobile mapplication that may be subject to the ethereal risks of broadband signals cutting out and so leaving the hapless tourist stranded and frozen, gazing into the unforgiving twinkle of a bleak blank empty screen.
So, as usual, there are about twenty works to locate in this year’s orienteering art challenge but, unlike previous years, I’ve more sensibly decided to set out on this cultural quest on a Sunday. And this makes a very dramatic difference. The streets, alleys and pavements are all empty; the offices, shops and cafes are all empty – most of them closed up completely – and, consequently, the streets, alleys and pavements are all devoid of the multitudes of busy-busy young people racing about going places. The other vehicular traffic is also much reduced, and the building construction work, that always seems to be going on all the time in this notably compacted area, is similarly, for the most part, stopped. The comparative silence is deafening. And for the simple soul bumbling about with map in hand trying to figure out which way to go, all this happy absence of work-day chaos just makes life a lot more pleasantly peaceful and simpler and less dangerous, reducing the chance of tripping back under a bus or forwards into the path of some manic bike courier or sideways into the path of a young trader in search of an energising triple espresso. In fact, just about the only other people I see today seem to be like me, looking for the specific sculpture works dotted about between the buildings here, or else on a more general walkabout looking at the very curious mixture of architectural items that characterise this part of town. And there really is a most curious incongruous mix here of some very old brick and stone churches, banks and other traditional institutional buildings squeezed into the interstices between some of the most modern glass and steel skyscraper superstructures that computer-aided designers have managed to create.
Even without the art, this is indeed a most interesting place to visit, especially when all its usual inhabitants have departed. Without any of the frantic distraction that its typical temporary population generates, it certainly makes it easier to both find the art and then step back, walk around it and take a more considered look. Sadly, I’m not entirely sure that this actually helps make any of the sculptures look any better. Which is not necessarily to suggest that the artworks are all just a bit unexceptional – although that may indeed be the case – but more to point out the fact that none of the works is precisely site-specific. Meaning that I don’t think any of the artists were commissioned to make their creations with a prior knowledge of where they would be situated or what they would be surrounded by or encompassed within. And, of course, this really makes quite a difference, especially when the surroundings are, as already mentioned, so very special and cluttered with visual distraction. And that’s without the the traffic, human and otherwise, that would normally be whooshing around them in the usual daily clamouring vortex.
Some of the artworks, I think, would definitely fare better removed from the pavement and reinstalled within the confines of a nice neat, quiet, cool art gallery. Michael Lyons‘ Stagnight looks to me to be the sort of Caro-like abstract agglomeration of welded steel offcuts that would contrast quite well against an empty white cube gallery backdrop but gets very much overwhelmed by the monolithic metal office buildings and flow of cars and buses into which it has been currently marooned. Similarly, The Source, Patrick Tuttofuoco‘s neon light hands suspended in the heights of Leadenhall Market almost disappears, subsumed within the flamboyant ornamented brick features and fancy glass roof of its extravagant Neo-Rococo environment. And I can’t quite see the logic of placing Marisa Ferreira‘s steel and coloured glass construction Series Industrial Windows I in the gargantuan shadow of the exact kind of architectural equivalent that it’s presumably meant to be referencing. Saddest of all though, when it comes to the problems of ill-considered siting, is poor Jyll Bradley‘s Dutch/Light which is another slightly larger mash up of steel and cloured glass (in fact plexiglass this time). The slanting planes have been leaned against the Sir John Cass School of Art School but it’s just about impossible to see them head-on as a whole bunch of other free-standing informational panels advertising London’s Grand Designs seem to have been deliberately erected in order to block their view.
Having spotlit some of the duffers (and again, trying to be fair to the artists, I feel obliged to stress that my main criticisms above are directed towards the siting of the sculptures rather than the works themselves), I guess I should quickly pick out some that look relatively more comfortable with their situation, starting off with Kevin Francis Gray‘s Reclining Nude I which rests recumbently on a traditional plinth in the small garden churchyard area by St Botolph-without-Bishopgate. On a working day this small segment of very pretty greenery would be teeming with office workers munching their way through packed lunches or other takeaway comestibles but today, perhaps more appropriately, there are just a pair of sad old drunks to join me looking at the marble figure who, in what I take to be an ironic reworking of traditional carving techniques, looks deliberately unsmoothed and decidedly distressed.
Leo Fitzmaurice‘s simple street sign proclaiming its eponymous title Arcadia is also well-placed, having been given additional meaning, resonance, psychic suggestability or some such artistic validity by dint of its being settled next to the single tree on an otherwise very unbucolic street of shops, offices and traffic. Shaun C Badham‘s neon-lit proclamation I’m Staying uses a sufficiently bold font and high-wattage illuminatory current to be able to stand out against the Leadenhall Market fripperies already mentioned and that so sadly defeat his nearby colleague’s attempts. And I suppose the fact that I ticked off this piece when walking round last-year’s trail lends the work the kind of additional verisimilitudinal authority that will grow with time. It’s true that time and familiarity can often help artworks become more appreciated and there are a couple of other pieces here – Nancy Rubins‘ Crocodylius Philodendrus and Juliana Cerqueira Leite‘s Climb – that looked familiar from previous visits and have perhaps grown in statuary stature from that sense of renewed acquaintanceship.
At which point I only seem to have covered about half of the artworks and yet managed to use up nearly all my blogging space. So, apologies to the artists I’ve not managed to name check and a final note to say that, taken as a whole, I definitely found the sculpture strollathon rather an enjoyable way to pass my ninety Sunday minutes in the City.
And, for reference, I’ve placed the photos in the same order in which they appear in the text (with the exception of the opening shot which is my attempt at creating a conceptual photo-work trying to pun on the thought of a yellow-brick road (although the line here is actually some kind of rubberised cable cover).