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11 March 2015

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.

By Will Self

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.

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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?

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