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A little bird tells the story of hope, faith and spirituality in Tracey Emin’s ‘feminine’ public artwork.

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11 Mar 2005

by Ian Banks

The artist as celebrity is big business. In the field of public art, it can sometimes appear to eclipse the importance and quality of the artwork produced, particularly where regeneration and marketing bodies gloat over the relative size and cost of their commissions; as well as the media column inches attained. Thus, public art is often used as a means to an end; a vehicle to help achieve a regenerative nirvana through the brokering in of cultural capital.

A recent Arts Council event in Liverpool, created in conjunction with the BBC, debated the thorny issue of ‘Can you buy culture?’ Art05 celebrates the best North West arts and cultural practitioners and this year this queried the role of the arts as ‘saviour of our cities’. Given the location, the tone of the event was not surprisingly influenced by the approaching Capital of Culture status, in 2008. Chaired by Alan Yentob, director of creativity at BBC, an eminent arts panel including the sculptor Richard Wentworth, debated with an invited audience. In one notable exchange, Wentworth worried about the pitfalls of only creating “a shinier world for shiny people”, through the gentrification of urban environments. He argued that the historic city and its communities were inextricably woven, like tweed, and that a true beauty came from this eclectic mix, not in the creation of artificial urban quarters.

In the light of this discussion it is perhaps not unsurprising that the flagship for Art05 was its very own public artwork. Tracey Emin’s ‘Roman Standard’, her first work for the public realm, is sited in front of the classical portico of The Oratory beside Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Costing a reported £60,000 and commissioned directly by the BBC (in the same spirit it says, as Eric Gill was commissioned to produce Prospero and Ariel sculptures for Broadcasting House, in 1933), the work portrays a tiny contemporary liver bird sat atop a thin four metre metal pole. The work is classed as temporary as planning permissions extend only until 2008, much depends on public reaction (and any attempted thefts) as to whether it will remain longer. Both the original liver bird and the Roman Empire used the masculine power symbol of the eagle; but Emin’s tiny bronze has morphed into a more mythical creature. She says that it is not based on any particular species but relates to her long-standing interest in birds representing freedom as “angels of the earth”. She sees ‘Roman Standard’ as alluding to the inner strength of femininity, being a delicate counterfoil to the “oppressive and dark” masculine symbols of power seen in much public art today. The work aspires to appear and then disappear, and while not dominating, becoming a symbol for “hope, faith and spirituality”.

The reasons for Emin to site her piece, referencing neo-Roman architecture, behind the gates of John Foster\'s miniature Greek Oratory are unclear. Perhaps it is just happy synchronicity then, that only a few hundred metres along Hope Street, sits the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, which is also in the advanced stages of realising a spiritual work by another major female artist. Here, on the roof garden of the visitor centre, sits the landscaped future site for a beautifully integrated work by artist Susanna Heron. Heron’s work has studiously evolved out of an introspective client and site considerations. In contrast, the Emin piece represents a more spontaneous interpretation, appearing to respond intuitively to both an immediate religious setting and the wider cultural context. For different reasons, the quality and delicacy of both works shines through, and certainly both share the potential of becoming real hidden gems in the city; discovered only through serendipitous accident. At the unveiling of ‘Roman Standard’, Emin talked of the potential “magic and alchemy” of her artwork, and arguably the expression captures what both the works hope to achieve. The jury is still out, but public feedback on both pieces will hopefully reinforce the view that a masculine, ‘big is beautiful’ approach, is not necessarily best; and that sometimes a feminine ‘less is more’ philosophy can help create the elixir for sustainable cultural regeneration in the city.

Ian Banks writes on behalf of the Public Art and Architecture unit at Arts Council England NW. The unit is co-funded by stakeholder RIBA NW for 2004/05. Ian Banks is now part-time consultant director of public realm at Public Arts, the Yorkshire-based public art and architecture agency, and runs his own small collaborative practice, Atoll.

General information on Arts Council England and the NW public art and architecture stakeholder partnership can be viewed on www.artscouncil.org.uk and information portal www.publicartnorthwest.org.uk respectively. Information on Public Arts can be viewed on www.public-arts.co.uk and Atoll on www.atoll-uk.com.

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