“Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!” So runs the socialist truism taken from James Oppenheim’s poem.
Employment and sustenance may be vital human rights, but so are culture, art and beauty. The people of Teesside today received the biggest bunch of roses in the world — at a time when their bread is in shorter supply than ever.
Temenos is the world’s biggest public art project, a £2.7m Anish Kapoor creation that is being literally dropped on to the people of Middlesbrough from above. The piece will be finished over the next few months, incorporating 8,200 metres of stainless-steel cable, drawn not from Redcar’s doomed Corus steel plant, but nearby Yorkshire. Further giant public artworks across the rest of Teesside will eventually take the bill to £15m.
When I went to Middlesbrough for the New Statesman last year to find out how the recession was affecting the area, I found an atmosphere of grim transition — of council officials and local radio presenters grinning desperately through the decline of the last of Teesside’s manufacturing industries, hoping to patch up huge wounds with regeneration rhetoric.
“A bright future for Middlesbrough”, read the gleaming signs, as the brown scrubland and boarded-up windows around them told a different story. The Corus union chief Geoff Waterfield feared the end was in sight then for his beloved steel plant (its closure was duly announced in December), and his elegy is worth repeating:
When I see a blast furnace, I see a thing of beauty . . . I see something that has given thousands and thousands of people a way of life, a good, honest wage, the ability to pay their mortgages, go on holidays and bring up their families.
That to me is fabulous, that is a beautiful thing. When you come to Middlesbrough and see that skyline . . . that blast furnace is the heart of Teesside. As long as it pumps, there is life in Teesside.
Asked how he wanted people to react to Temenos‘s arrival, Cecil Balmond, co-creator of the project, told the Guardian last year: “It will be a kind of awe, I think.” This aim to evoke passive reverence is disturbing, coming as it does at a time when enforced idleness is soaring on Teesside. With an education that sadly skipped the Greek classics, I had to google “temenos”, and found this description:
Temenos (τέμενος, from the Greek verb τέμνω — “to cut”) is a piece of land cut off and assigned as an official domain, especially to kings and chiefs, or a piece of land marked off from common uses and dedicated to a god, a sanctuary, holy grove or holy precinct.
Having seen it glowing orange through the Teesside night, I too was struck by the beauty of the Corus blast furnace — but that was “public art” that involved, rather than alienated; that was the domain of the people, not merely kings and chiefs. Furthermore, it fed the body, as well as the heart.