Beyond redemption. Photo: ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
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Our statues will outlast us – so let’s think twice before making any more naff public art

From Achilles in London to Christ in Rio, public art sticks in cities' throats.

The 20-foot-high statue of brave Achilles that stands at the southern end of Park Lane, beside Hyde Park, wears a curious aspect. The first male nude statue to be erected in London since the Roman era, it was cast from captured French guns and dedicated by “the women of England to Arthur, Duke of Wellington and his brave companions in arms”. The women of England turned out when, in 1822, Richard Westmacott’s statue was conveyed through the streets to its plinth; however, it isn’t recorded whether they were abashed or amazed by Achilles’s, um, classical proportions. The critic Leigh Hunt described the statue as “manifesting the most furious intentions of self-defence against the hero whose abode it is looking at”. And indeed, the great bronze warrior cowers to this day, shield upraised, as if Apsley House (aka “No 1, London”, the nearby house given to Arthur Wellesley by the grateful nation) were about to rise up into the heavens and drop on his head.

Whenever I drive up Park Lane and see craven Achilles it makes me feel naked and vulnerable – and that’s before I’ve clapped eyes on the rest of the so-called public art cluttering up the median strip between the Hilton and Marble Arch. Over the years we’ve had upturned horses’ heads, an anodised Fiat 500, Gordian knots of extruded steel and God knows what other botched attempts at realistic figuration, subjective expression, or conceivably both.

I blame the women of England: before Achilles began his (to date) 193-year-long flashing incident, statues were first and foremost hieratic, either expressing the sacerdotal nature of power or emphasising the power of the sacred. Just like the nobs who commissioned them, the nudes of the 18th century only gradually came creeping out of country-house salons and into the landscaped garden – but by the mid-19th century there were all sorts of bizarre statues being plonked down hither and thither.

That certain mega-figures became asso­ciated with their respective cities only goes to show . . . Well, what? I’ve ridden the switchback railway up Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro; standing at the summit was Christ the Redeemer, performing a benediction while wreathed in clouds. He didn’t look very happy – and nor was I. On the flanks of the mountain, and spreading away inland, are Rio’s favelas, where the homicide rate is such that more people have died in the city since the beginning of the First Intifada (1987) than have perished in the whole of Israel-Palestine. If Jesus Christ is Rio’s genius loci then He is not the milquetoast depicted in the New Testament but one of the manifestations of Olodumare, the creator-deity of the Brazilian Candomblé religion, a syncretism of Catholicism and Yoruba beliefs whose adherents believe not in striving to be moral, but in fulfilling their individual destiny whatever the consequences.

The figuration of the Roman goddess Libertas that stands, torch upraised, on a plinth-island in Upper New York Bay formed by the shells of myriad extinct bivalves could be viewed in a similar light. This touchstone of the Enlightenment is the default destination for all benighted tourists. I took the boat trip round the statue for the first time last year. It was the climactic day of the week-long Gay Pride celebrations in Manhattan, and, dragging my offspring through overcooked streets crammed with revellers, I began to feel a certain – wholly unjustified – heterosexual resentment. It looked to be cooler out in the Bay, but in fact we were treated to a wittily bilious hour-long commentary by a woman from Queens whose native New Yorker pride was offset only by her animus towards Wall Street’s deluded Masters of the Universe.

In his poem “For the Union Dead”, Robert Lowell anatomises the memorial that stands in the north-eastern corner of Boston Common, featuring a bas-relief of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first volunteer force of African Americans raised to fight for the north. Lowell writes:

 

William James could almost hear the

bronze Negroes breathe.

 

Their monument sticks like a fishbone

in the city’s throat.

 

I’d argue that all such monuments – godly or temporal – stick in cities’ throats. In Straw Dogs, his chapbook of aphorisms, John Gray notes: “In cities, persons are shadows cast by places, and no generation lasts as long as a street.” An aperçu that makes of every civic dignitary an Ozymandias, drawing a bead on us through the gunsights of Time.

This isn’t at all reassuring, because I don’t think I can bear the thought that some (if not all) of the tat that passes for public art in Britain will long outlast me. It’s just as disturbing as the inverted scenario whereby an ancient statue of great beauty – such as the Bamiyan Buddhas – is destroyed within one’s lifetime. Yet it is chilling to picture some survivor of the apocalypse clambering through the rubble of St Pancras and coming upon the sightless eyes of Paul Day’s crappily kitsch giant lovers. Will they see the statue as evidence of a long-gone civilisation populated by cartoonish humanoids? Or will they set to excavating the rubble from the embracing figures so as to find out whether the male one has a more impressively thrusting sword than . . . Achilles?

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories