Love it or loathe it, public art has left its stamp on the region. As the most ambitious in the world takes shape at Middlesbrough, arts writer Keith Newton asks, what’s it all about?
ABOUT 3,000 years ago, Egypt was ruled by a master builder. He erected monuments, palaces, temples and even a fabulous, new capital city full of canals that he named after himself. And he put up statues – lots of them. Beautiful giants, all with a hint of a satisfied smile. Sometimes, he short-circuited the process by simply having statues of previous pharaohs recarved in his image.
His name was Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great and the superb originals and inferior reworkings have been discovered all over his empire. When you look at the face of ancient Egypt, you are usually looking at him.
Millions of visitors a year travel to marvel at his commissions in Egypt. Not quite as many come to gaze upon the Bottle of Notes in Middlesbrough, the Brick Train in Darlington or the Angel of the North hovering above the A1 in Gateshead. But the North East is no less bold in its public art ambitions.
Like it or not, you’ll find it everywhere, from Morpeth to Middlesbrough, South Tyneside to Stockton, Durham to Darlington, Berwick to Alnwick, Blyth, Gateshead, Hexham and Kielder – everything from the mighty Angel to curious contraptions on sponsored roundabouts. Depending on who you talk to, it can include war memorials, ornamental fountains and market crosses – even the interactive Spectra-Txt light tower in central Middlesbrough.
Now a new project is about to dwarf everything that has gone before.
Temenos, which will be all of 110m long and almost 50m high, is coming to Middlesbrough as part of the largest public art installation the world has ever seen. Costing £2.7m, it is the first of the Tees Valley Giants – five world-class art installations that will go up at a total cost of £15m in the five boroughs of the area – Stockton, Darlington, Hartlepool, and Redcar and Cleveland are the others.
It will be installed at Middlehaven alongside the Transporter Bridge and near to the Riverside Stadium and one of its funders is Middlesbrough FC, making the Boro the world’s first and only football club to be associated with such a sizeable piece of public art.
Boro’s chief operating officer Neil Bausor believes such projects have the power to “transform the image and reality of the area”.
“As proud standard bearers for the town and region, we are committed to supporting the ongoing regeneration of the town and are very much aligned with the Tees Valley Regeneration vision,” he says.
“World-class projects like Temenos are proof to national and regional communities that Middlesbrough has the ability to both achieve and surprise.” If all goes well, Temenos – a Greek word meaning land cut off and assigned as a sanctuary or holy area – will be suspended at Middlehaven by next summer.
The Greeks, of course, were also big fans of public art, but it was around long before they and indeed Ramesses stamped their images on the world. “Public art is a very old art form,” agrees Matthew Jarrett of Arts Council North East’s Commissions North. But what
exactly is the point of it? “To make a space more interesting,” says Matthew. “People have been making things to make somewhere special for years and we help it happen today by helping people find artists and artists find commissions. We do not fund art in the region – we help get it started.”
In the past two centuries, London, Paris and New York have set the pace as world leaders in public art, but other great cities have been eager to follow their lead.
In the 19th Century, the confident and growing industrial areas celebrated local heroes such as Earl Grey in Newcastle, ironmasters Bolckow and Vaughan in Middlesbrough and Joseph Pease in Darlington.
The rest of the modern world cottoned on to the idea of commissioned pieces of different styles of art much more quickly than we did. But though the North East got the message later than many other parts of Britain, it’s now at the forefront in bringing innovative concepts to the public stage.
Whatever the piece, wherever the place, public art is bound to stir up controversy.
Just look at the hoo-ha that surrounded the set of large, rusty, metal wings that took flight at Gateshead – the sneering opposition of councillors who later glowingly endorsed the now iconic Angel of the North, which elevated Newcastle’s poor relation to the world stage.
The arguments tend to turn on scale, site, size and budget, says Matthew Jarrett. But at the end of the day, it has to be appropriate to the setting. Take the Angel and the penguins on Redcar sea front. “You would not put the Angel on the site of the penguins or the penguins on the site of the Angel,” says Matthew. “They are both in the family of public art, but are productions with very different budgets and very different briefs.”
The Bottle of Notes and the Brick Train pre-date lottery funding, which was behind so many developments from the late Nineties onwards, including the Angel – a symbol of faith built almost entirely on the proceeds of luck. But now regeneration is driving the agenda, which is not entirely surprising because public art’s other great function – as our friend Ramesses was only too well aware – is to reinforce identity.
Tees Valley Regeneration is behind the giants starting with Temenos. Its stainless steel cables reflect the industrial heritage of Middlesbrough and the Tees Valley and its construction will call on the traditional skills of the region – precision engineering and heavy industry.
Sculptor Anish Kapoor conceived the design, while structural designer Cecil Balmond has to build it. The pair were also responsible for similar monumental creations in New York, Chicago and Bejing.
To aspire to put Middlesbrough on a similar platform to those great cities is ambitious indeed, but it speaks volumes of a new confidence in the region.
Boro’s Neil Bausor believes Temenos could be the catalyst for spectacular development of the Middlehaven site and the fact that it’s tempted Cecil, who used to work for Cleveland Bridge in Darlington before joining Arup, the structural engineers where he is now deputy chairman, back to the region would seem to endorse his faith in the power of public art.
On a personal note, Cecil says: “It’s nice to come back with a work in steel.”
Eyesore or inspiration?
A snapshot of lesser known public art installations in the North East
Spectra-Txt – Peter Freeman’s 10m high steel tower in the heart of the town’s shopping area.
40,000 Years Of Public Art – Benedict Carpenter’s £30,000 bronze sculpture at Hudson Quay.
Redcar and Cleveland The Penguins – on the Promenade at Redcar.
Strata – the 6.8m high, £43,000 stainless steel column at the council offices in Guisborough.
Darlington Morton Palms NZ323135 – John Atkin’s steel structure, which takes its name from the site’s ordnance survey reference point.
Durham City Skybowl – the look-at-and-enter highly polished stainless steel structure at Aykley Heads, which looks across the city to the cathedral.
Newcastle Elipsis Eclipses – Danny Lane’s 12m high installation, which complements The Gate building in Newgate Street.
Give and Take – Peter Randall-Page’s geometric sculpture carved from a 40-ton glacial boulder at Trinity Gardens.
Gateshead Threshold – Lulu Quinn’s 5m high doorframe shaped piece marking the southern end of Gateshead High Street
South Tyneside Conversation Piece – 22-part bronze sculpture by Juan Munoz at the mouth of the Tyne.
Fleet – Irene Brown’s seven highly polished stainless steel sculptures of 19th century collier brigs at Market Dock.
Alnwick The Serpent Garden – William Pye’s eight interactive water structures in Alnwick Garden.
Newbiggin The Couple – Sean Henry’s two 5m high bronze figures on a steel plinth 15m long and 7.5m high gazing out over Newbiggin Bay.
Temenos - the alternative view CONTROVERSY nearly always courts public art and Temenos is no exception. Craig Hornby, the Teesside film maker responsible for celebrating the area’s once dynamic and world-changing ironstone mining and iron and steel making industries in his outstanding film A Century In Stone, puts his view. “I am fundamentally opposed to Temenos, firstly for the absolute lack of the public being involved and consulted.
“The artist, the concept, the piece, the name and the location was a done deal.
“The art itself I believe was of secondary importance and ‘one prepared earlier’ by the artist and not inspired by Middlesbrough at
“If you search ‘Marysas’ which is a previous work by sculptor Anish Kapoor from 2002 at Tate Modern in London, it becomes obvious.
“It was presented in a patronising and tenuous way to an unwitting public, claiming its stainless steel and cable ‘reflected Middlesbrough’s heritage’.
“But Middlesbrough became the world superpower in iron making and never made stainless steel. The only thing I like about Temenos is the massive scale, but it now represents a massive missed opportunity for Middlesbrough to tell the town’s story past, present and future to the world.
“Instead we are now going to get a gigantic folly full of holes.
“The only thing public about this public art is that the public will have to lump it.”