Friday, 22 July 2011

But Is It Art?

It appears that, for a series entitled “At Large”, I’m spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing Art.  The question of ‘what constitutes ‘Art’’ is the basis for a project I am currently developing, so there was every chance that issues arising from the work I’m doing on that will provide the basis for something to talk about here.

We had a day of high culture last weekend, spending Saturday in a rain-soaked Middlesbrough, taking in its exceptional public art, and then visiting MIMA, the town's very impressive Museum of Modern Art.  Way back, around 1970, as a student living there,I remember Middlesbrough holding its first contemporary art exhibition. Radical, different and often unsettling imagery, presented in the converted doctor’s surgery that was Middlesbrough Art Gallery at the time, wasn’t something that this A-level Art student expected, but it was the precursor of a constant, innovative and improving engagement that the town has with contemporary art.  Today’s public art in Middlesbrough includes work from internationally acclaimed artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Anish Kapoor.

Bottle Of Letters
Oldenburg’s Bottle Of Letters (which, in my typically inattentive way, I’ve always known as Message In A Bottle - and you'll see why), graces one of Middlesbrough’s earliest central land clearances, and today is attractively surrounded by a lake and green open spaces.  More recently, and perhaps to create a lure to the proposed dock-side development scheme, Anish Kapoor was commissioned to produced his giant work Temenos, the first part of the world’s largest public art project which will straddle the Tees Valley.  It is huge.

Middlesbrough has always been at home with giant structures.  The famous 100 year old Transporter Bridge and, up the River Tees, the Newport Bridge are surrounded by equally dramatic flare stacks, blast furnaces, cranes and the ephemeral leviathans that make up the hardware of the steel, shipbuilding and chemical industries - massive, intriguing shapes, all of them. And it was these that reminded me of my unanswered question ‘what constitutes Art?’ and prompted me to think further.

Temenos is a commissioned sculpture, a work in steel and wire, which are materials indigenous to Middlesbrough.  Yet adjacent to the sculpture is a shipyard's travelling crane. Redundant, and consequently derelict like so many of the tools of Teesside industry, its huge dimensions equate to Temenos, its lines clean and forceful, its effect on those who study it possibly equally profound.
Not Art

But does anyone ever actually study it?  It was never constructed to be ‘Art’: it’s a crane.  If Andy Goldsworthy can make an ordinary tree ‘Art’ by putting a frame around it, why should the crane - designed and crafted out of steel and wire by artisans - not be ‘Art’?   Or is Temenos only ‘Art’ because it set out to be in the first place and someone tells us that it is? 

Our day of high culture ended by savouring Teesside’s contribution to the world of haute cuisine, the Chicken Parmo.

But that's another story...

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