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Public art does not have to be grand and bombastic. It is sometimes more effective when it is modest

What is the point and purpose of public art? Once, it was clear: you were a general or an admiral and if you won a big enough victory you got a bronze statue stuck on a plinth. Or, if it was a very big victory against those dastardly neighbours, the French, you would even get a 151-foot granite column in Trafalgar Square. Nationalism was the point, or, in the case of Charles Sargeant Jagger's Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner or Great Western Railway War Memorial in Paddington railway station, a dignified commemoration of the dead was.

Today, in a democratic age, everyone has an opinion to voice on public art, from the cogno scenti to Joe Bloggs complaining about the waste of public money. Anyone who "knows" about art is likely to take the long route to avoid the horrendously kitsch and overblown Meeting Place at St Pancras Station, but who is to say that hundreds of ordinary people don't love it and use it as north London's version of Waterloo's celebrated clock?

And what about those ubiquitous Antony Gormleys that filled the skyline over the South Bank recently or which stare wistfully out to sea from Crosby Beach in Liverpool? Do you love them or hate them? As if there weren't enough "Gorms" around already, there is Angel of the North, and everyone has an opinion on that; from fascistic and bombastic to imaginative symbol of place. Take your pick.

Now we are to get what has been called Angel of the South, a £2m project sited on the new Ebbsfleet development in Kent. The towns of Dartford and Gravesham in the Thames Gateway are the scene for Britain's most ambitious attempt to establish pioneering sustainable communities around Britain's new international Eurostar station.

More than 20,000 new jobs and 10,000 homes are planned. This area of deprivation, which is neither city nor country, has until now largely been forgotten. Art is seen as a symbol of regeneration. Everywhere wants its own version of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim that changed the fortunes of Bilbao. The shortlist here is comprised of five artists: Rachel White read, Christopher Le Brun, Richard Deacon, Mark Wallinger (the favourite) and a token Frenchman, Daniel Buren.

And what is each artist proposing? Daniel Buren's idea is probably the most ambitious - a signal tower of five stacked cubes through which a single laser beam of light reaches indefinitely into the sky. The work does not seem quite right for this rather ordinary site adjacent to the A2, even though it would look wonderful on a hill or in an empty plain with a long approach. Richard Deacon's painted steel latticework, a "stack" of differently shaped polyhedrons, certainly echoes the skeletal frames of the nearby electricity pylons, bringing notions of engineering and geometry to a rural location, but seems a bit intellectual to sit in a field.

Christopher Le Brun has always made work that refers to myth. His disc and giant wing are symbolic of flight, reminding those who mind about such things that the winged Mercury was the god of both travellers and commerce. Made from concrete - one of the principal products of this part of north Kent - it would be made by first carving the shape into the chalk landscape and then casting the negative spaces in the chalk in concrete; the piece would create a giant grassed amphitheatre. Rachel Whiteread's proposal is rather disappointing, from a usually imaginative artist known for casting the interior spaces of domestic objects and places. Her life-size cast in terior of a house placed on a craggy "recycled mountain" is, in many ways, just a reiteration of the house she made in the East End of London in 1993, and seems too dour for this site.

So that leaves Mark Wallinger's enormous white horse, which probably presses all the right buttons. Witty enough to appeal to the cogno scenti and redolent with associations of Anglo-Saxon chalk white horses, it is also easy enough on the eye for the average person not to have to ask: "Is that art?" Thirty-three times life size, it will certainly function as a landmark and provide the logo that the developers of the site probably want. In the interests of democracy, those attending the nearby Bluewater shopping mall will be given the chance to comment on the selection (though they won't have any real power to influence the outcome).

But the real question is: Does public art always have to be monumental and so expensive? Some of its most effective uses have been modest - in hospitals and schools, for example. Andy Golds worthy, with his Lower Manhattan memorial to victims of the Holocaust, worked eloquently with nature's most elemental materials - stone, trees, soil - to create a garden that is a metaphor for the tenacity and fragility of life. The work of Peter Randall-Page integrates people with their surroundings and nature in order to convey a strong sense of place. Always precisely and quietly sited, it provides a deep connection to a locality through the use of organic forms.

I was commissioned during a residency as the Poetry Society's Public Art Poet to create a poem in the underpass at Waterloo Station that leads to the Imax cinema. The purpose of this piece was simply to make people feel comfortable walking through a urine-soaked, subterranean tunnel. Mark Wallinger's work, if it wins the Ebbsfleet competition, will provide a focus, a logo, a brand. But public art at its most effective can be both more modest and more reflective. At its best, it changes our relationship to a space and our feelings about how we inhabit it.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide