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December 13, 2017
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Antony Gormley's Angel of the North. Source: picturesofgateshead.co.uk.

The team behind Beijing's "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium will create this year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion as part of the London 2012 Festival, which will serve as the highlight of the Cultural Olympiad. Contemporary Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei and Swiss-based architects, Herzog & De Meuron's first collaborative-built structure in the UK will allow visitors to explore the history of previous pavilions via an excavated site layout.

In a statement released to the BBC News website, the team gave some idea as to what inspired the organic nature of the construct: "A distinctive landscape emerges out of the reconstructed foundations, which is unlike anything we could have invented," they said. "Its [sic] form and shape is actually a serendipitous gift. The three-dimensional reality of this landscape is astonishing and it is also the perfect place to sit, stand, lie down or just look and be amazed."

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012.
Designed by Herzog & de Meuron & Ai Weiwei.
© 2012, by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei.

To create the design, the artists placed the plans from the eleven previous pavilions on top of each other and then manipulated the outcome into a 3D effect, clad in sustainable cork. Twelve columns will support a floating disc roof, 1.5 metres above the ground, which will retain rainwater and provide onlookers with various reflections and offer space for outdoor theatrical performances.

Initially, the gallery appears to tick all the boxes for "modern art construction in public arena." This blueprint has become commonplace in Europe's major cities as some sort of coded message of transformation and social regeneration in the midst of the tidal wave of recession and austerity that is presently sweeping across the continent.

As outlined in her essay, Art for Whose Sake? Modern Art Museums and their Role in Transforming Societies (Journal of Conversation and Museum Studies, 2001), Evdoxia Baniotopoulou explains how "culture" has superseded industry and manufacturing as the economic engine of a post-industrial Western society. In her essay, Baniotopolou states, "history so far has shown that one of the main approaches towards urban regeneration relies heavily on the exploitation of the cultural sector's potential." She adds, "It appears that 'culture,' in its broad, not always easily definable sense, is seen as a focal point, from which radiate not only opportunities in economic terms, but also - and maybe more importantly - the hope for a change of identity of the transforming societies."

The Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London's Bankside area are prime examples of how "art and culture" can assist in urban regeneration by changing the perception of a formerly economically depressed area. Echoing Baniotopolou's contention in her thesis, the transformation of a disused power station into a hub of creativity and commerce is a clear symbol of Britain's post-industrial socio-economic strategy. However, where does the specific idea of "public art" fit into this brave new world of grand conceptual visions?

The role of public art varies, but to be successful it must demonstrate links to social and economic development to justify public sector investment. Providing a link to the past, providing a vision of the future, complementing the natural environment and involving local communities in the design and development of artwork, are all important components that can help elicit local pride, foster community cohesion, image enhancement, investment and tourism.

The role of public art varies, but to be successful, it must demonstrate links to social and economic development to justify public sector investment.

Some public artworks have proved more successful than others. Since spreading its wings in February 1998, Antony Gormley's The Angel of the North has become one of the most talked about pieces of public art ever produced. Made from 200 tonnes of steel, 500 tonnes of concrete and a wingspan of 54 metres, it stands astride a panoramic hilltop mound in the northeast of England. The mound was made out of the destroyed remains of the pithead baths, left derelict and abandoned after the closure of the Lower Tyne Colliery. Gormley explains the inspiration behind The Angel on his website, "I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages." He continues, "The Angel resists our post-industrial amnesia and bears witness to the hundreds and thousands of colliery workers who had spent the last three hundred years mining coal beneath the surface."

A collaborative venture with local firms and the best engineers from around the world, Gormley's The Angel acts as a guardian of the industrial past dominated by coal-mining and ship building, while simultaneously protecting an embryonic future encouraged by a cultural renaissance. This piece of "public" art seems to have captured the spirit of a region and resonates with the landscape into which it merges.

Another conceptual artist who hopes to strike a similar chord is London-based Turner Prize winner and sculptor, Anish Kapoor. Commissioned to build the largest public sculpture in the UK, Kapoor's Orbit will stand 115 metres high like a drunken version of the Eiffel Tower, situated in close proximity to the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London. Kapoor describes the meaning of the sculpture on his website: "I wanted the sensation of instability, something that was continually in movement. Traditionally a tower is pyramidal in structure, but we have done quite the opposite, we have a flowing, coiling form that changes as you walk around it. It is an object that cannot be perceived as having a singular image, from any one perspective. You need to journey round the object, and through it. Like a Tower of Babel, it requires real participation from the public."

Anish Kapoor's Orbit. Source: inhabit.com.

So, the interactive sculpture becomes alive with visitors at £15.00 (C$24) a pop, however, will it resonate with the local people as a structure that represents the regeneration and spirit of the area? Or will it just be a twisted metal "helter-skelter" ride for tourists?

London Times columnist Libby Purves described it as "a piece of vainglorious sub-industrial steel gigantism, signifying nothing." The New Culture Forum, created to challenge the dogma and relativism of the establishment, also infers that public art such as Kapoor's Orbit is the conceptual equivalent of the "emperor's new clothes." In its promotion of a report on public art entitled What's That Thing? by critic, curator and documentary filmmaker Igor Toronyi-Lalic, it says, "Despite the notable successes, the surge [in public art] is being met with rising public and critical disquiet. Very little public art of the past twenty years has much to do with the public it purports to be addressing and with which it presumptuously associates itself." 

Although there is some method in its madness, the proliferation of public art and its associated costs (thought to be £56 million (C$90.5 million) in 2011, with the majority of this figure subsidised by the taxpayer) at a time when the UK has just hit a double-dip recession, public services are being cut and the standard of living of ordinary people is being lowered in the name of austerity, seems strangely misguided. Just as the temples of ancient Egypt and the Coliseum of Rome are now reminders of once great civilisations, maybe historians of the future will point to the ruins of Britain's "public" art and see a death spiral of a society in terminal decline.

As for the new Serpentine Gallery, I will probably go to have a look if I'm in the vicinity and will most likely enjoy the aesthetic appeal of something visually stimulating and unusual. But will it fill me with a sense of community and pride in my home City? It's more likely that I will experience an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and a creeping sense of disconnection.

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