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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis