State of the Art/Art of the State: Public Art in the UK

The aesthetics of public space.

It was John Ruskin who claimed that the "measure of a city's greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces." Looking around the London landscape - the 200-strong herd of fibreglass elephants currently roaming the streets, Banksy's signature graffiti, the production line of fourth plinth sculptures - it's hard to imagine the city even registering on Ruskin's fastidious scale of "greatness".

The question of our public spaces - their function, aesthetic form and social value - is something of a hot topic during this, the week of London's biennial Festival of Architecture. With the Olympics spawning architectural and environmental regeneration across the capital, as well as bringing its own spin-off Cultural Olympiad, London's public spaces are coming under new scrutiny.

This scrutiny was given particularly vigorous voice on Monday night. White Cube's Director of Exhibitions Tim Marlow marshalled a six-strong panel - including Janet Street-Porter, Sir Ian Blair and Marc Quinn - through a debate on "The Politics of Cultural Disruption", teasing out the central issues of public art: Should it be community or artist-driven? Who has aesthetic ownership over public space? Where is the line between provocative and outright offensive?

The first of three debates organised by Artichoke, the company behind live art projects The Sultan's Elephant and Anthony Gormley's One and Other, it was more an evening of questions than answers - a pattern Britain's arts organisations and institutions have long struggled to break.

The traditional touchstones - aesthetic subjectivity, funding, value, function - all came in for predictable multi-directional attack, with temporary installations emerging as an unlikely communal point of compromise, a disposable, wipe-clean solution for the products of a disposable age.

Most striking though was the pervasive public concept of art as social functionary. Sarah Gaventa, director of CABE Space, the government's advisor on urban public space, spoke of being issued with a brief to create an art-work that would "reduce anti-social behaviour", and Street-Porter railed at the use of art as an aesthetic sticking-plaster, dismissing artificial attempts to build community through art as the "Angel of the North factor".

Yet this transitive, consumerist culture of art is not easy to escape. Gaventa herself, writing in Monday's Guardian described public space and its associated art as an "essential natural health service, the ultimate drop-in centre - preventative healthcare that is far cheaper than the NHS and without a waiting list."

The responsibility of public art to "disrupt", "amaze", and "create a moment in your day that is unforgettable", was a point of general agreement. Asked for encounters from their own experiences, the panel's examples included participation in London's 1968 anti-Vietnam march, spending an hour as the "exhibit" on the fourth plinth, and a kiss with a girlfriend in a public park - crucially all experiences both interactive and personal.

Hoping to capture some of this same amazement are the entrants for RIBA's Forgotten Spaces competition, currently staged as an exhibition at the National Theatre. Inviting proposals to rework neglected pockets of London land, the competition shortlist includes a light installation on the underside of the M4, a speakers' forum in Brixton and a series of gardens along disused Circle Line ventilation shafts. Only slightly less unusual is Gort Scott's winning project "Reservoir Roofs", which involves the spatial development of reservoirs in the Lee Valley.

One of the competition's guiding principles was the notion of creating new community "hubs", places for recreation, stimulation, and of course interaction. Perhaps, then, this is the beginning of an answer to the fraught question of public space and its art: an understanding that success lies in embracing its uniquely contingent, reflexive relationship with viewers and keeping artistic daydreams of the Kantian thing in itself for the gallery and studio.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge