28 May 2010

Waterworks: town and country

Yinka Shonibare's ship in bottle has just gone up on the fourth plinth in Traflagar Square and it's a triumph in every sense: over the threat of a permanent monument “suitable for ordinary Londoners”, and the images of bad, boring and ludicrous art works that loom in the collective memory at the mention of 'public art'.

It's delicately subsersive, true of all Shonibare's best works -- RSA- and visitor-friendly in the manner of the best Pop objects, as Adrian Searle comments -- all the while situating one (with celebratory aplomb) between opposing 'isms': the colonial and multicultural view. This bottled and stoppered scale model of Nelson's HMS Victory is big enough to be absurd (worthy of the spectacle afforded by this historic location), yet accurate enough in original detail and alternative tone to be taken seriously. It is also the first commission in the series by a Black artist.

Trafalgar Square is certainly not Tatton, but Shonibare's handling of its history and other issues specific to the site connects these very different locations and commissions. The compromises (with commissioners, custodians and the material anomalies of site and situation) might resonate one with another, so too the question “how far is too far?” While this boat out of water appears plinth-proud opposite its captain on the other side of the square, in the manner of a face off, Shonibare works with the constraints imposed by the position and the scenario, choosing to alter and display an iconic object that to all intents and purposes now 'fits' yet could never 'fit' the spot for which it was selected.

Back in Cheshire, thinking about scale, context and fit, and things that do or don't, should or shouldn't bob, brings me to Steve Messam’s lilypads and my first, sadly disappointing, encounter with them. Quite simply, they do not begin to meet the expectations raised by the proposal material. Where Messam's original imagery promised outsized 'It's a Knockout' style forms situated at odd points along the water, the view from the drive is, conversely, one of friendly red pedalos politely scattered -- as if in surprise, perhaps, at being so rudely tickled by the heavy hand of health and safety, or poorly realised by the artist -- for who is to ‘blame’ in such a situation when art ‘fits’ but does not ‘work’?

Elsewhere, however, the experience works in reverse, distant presumptions confounded. Helen Maurer's chandelier-like display of Modern-era Venini glass, originally made for Manchester airport, might have been designed long ago for the central hall space one finds it in, yet, as passing public traffic rightly notes, “it's just not in keeping” with the house. For, aside from any continuity issues, the moving light source means that it's not always found twinkling under the lights -- at certain points the installation quite literally becomes a glaring distraction.

Similarly, propriety appears the order of the day upon entry into the archival room; objects and artefacts presented neatly under glass. Yet, Plastique Fantastique's irreverent fanzine on all things cult and Oona Grimes's 'MAD' (Maurice's Arctic Diary) interpretation of the last Earl's travels is anything but. The perfectly ethereal quality of an engraved series of mirrors under a dresser extends the life of her mission to play amongst the material evidence of his existence beyond the sheer oddity of biographical ephemera and facts.

Local press has picked up on the technical issues surrounding ‘Lily’, rightly so perhaps, but this short, less-than-accurate article (and the public opinions highlighted within it) fails to reflect the project remit: the importance of risk to the realization of it and the many rewards that have come as a result. These artworks have not been wheeled (out of the gallery) into the open air like the inpatients of a sanatorium, but are the result of a series of rigorously researched, planned and executed site-specific endeavours. Gabie’s ice might have melted, Farquhar fallen off her high horse, and who knows how many people will find but never know they’ve found Ryan Gander’s stone sculpture, or what Houldsworth’s fossilization machine will actually produce, but isn’t that the point?

Talking of which, I’ll be at Tatton this weekend, chatting to Houldsworth and 2008 biennial artist Jacques Nimki about art on the bio-side.

Posted by Rebecca Geldard at 12:17 PM