Monumental Errors

The problem with Public Art, Michael Warren's sculpture

The controversial Gateway sculpture that has cast long shadows over the streets of Dun Laoghaire for six years was removed towards the end of April 2009. The monument was dismissed as an eyesore by many. (comment on Flickr)

The problem with “public” art

The above post on Flicker brutally sums up the conflict over contemporary works of art that are placed in public places by local authorities and other agencies. In this case the sculpture, by the respected Irish artist Michael  Warren, was commissioned by “developer Eddie Sweeny under the Per Cent for Art Scheme, and erected in 2002 close to the Pavilion retail and theatre complex and Dún Laoghaire’s 19th-century county hall” ( Irish Times). The Per Cent For Art Scheme allows for a percentage of the cost of public capital works to be spent on an artistic feature.

The sculpture was removed in 2009 during work on the new library in Dún Laoghaire  but it was not replaced when this work was completed. It appears that it is being ‘returned’ to the artist in exchange for another work in a deal brokered by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLRCC), although the Council declined to comment on the exchange” according to the report by Fiona Gartland.

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Richard Serra, 1981. Tilted Arc ( Source)

Part of the problem was Warren’s choice of material. Corten steel is an industrial material that became popular in large scale architectural and sculptural projects in the 1970s. It suited outdoor because it forms a corrosion resistant surface or patina and, its angular, industrial look was an important part of its aesthetic appeal. Its use was pioneered by the American artist Richard Serra  in the 1970s with a series of site specific sculptures that are monumental in scale and strikingly industrial in contrast to their surroundings: in the way that Michael Warren’s scupture contrasts with “Dún Laoghaire’s 19th-century county hall.”

Controversy was inevitable. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was erected in the Federal Plaza in New York City in 1981 but, following a public vote, the sculpture was dismantled and the material used for scrap. Serra wasn’t happy: “To remove the work is to destroy it” he said. Warren’s scuplture won’t be scrapped, it’s on its way to an alternative site in the UK and the site specific references implied by the title will be lost.

Eilís O'Connell, Great Wall of Kinsale, 1988 (Photo: Southern Star).

Eilís O’Connell, Great Wall of Kinsale, 1988 (Photo: Southern Star).

Warren isn’t the first artist to run up against local authorities and their idea of “public” art. In 1989 the Arts Council wanted to promote public art as a showcase for contemporary sculpture.  It commissioned The Great Wall of Kinsale from Eilís O’Connell at a cost of £22,000, making it the biggest  public art commission to date. The Arts Council had “awarded” the sculpture to the town in recognition of its recent success in the Tidy Towns Composition.

It was an ambitious project and the influence of Serra was obvious, both in the use of Corten steel and the imposing scale of the piece. This was a bold statement, a statement that was meant to define “public” art in terms of contemporary, professional arts practice.It was lost on the members of Kinsale Urban District Council (KUDC). A campaign was begun to remove the sculpture. It was a nasty, divisive campaign. I was covering it for CIRCA Art Magazine (Issue 46) and witnessed at first hand the bullying tactics of people campaigning against the perceived elitism of the professional art community and its attempts to impose its values on the plain people of Ireland. I was also involved in a public art “education” campaign funded by the Arts Council.  It was a close fought campaign and a decision by UDC to remove the sculpture was narrowly deferred after a  Kathleen Watkins, a member of the  Arts Council, personally addressed the UDC on the evening that it was expected to vote to “destroy” the sculpture.

Protesting Art: Protesters outside Limerick City Gallery of Art, from Sean Lynch's 'rocky Road To Dublin' project 2011/12.

Protesting Art: protesters outside Limerick City Gallery of Art, from Sean Lynch’s ‘Rocky Road To Dublin’ archival project  and exhibition 2011/12 (Sean Lynch).

That’s the good news. The UDC began to treat the sculpture as a public hazard, tampering with the sculpture to prevent people interacting with it (climbing on it)  and carried out changes to make it more acceptable – painting over the Corten steel.  O’Connell has produced  The Contemporary Condition of The Great Wall of Kinsale for Seán Lynch’s Rocky Road To Dublin project in 2011, an exhibition that documents controversies that rocked the Irish art world in the 1970s and 1980s mostly ( an exhibition guide is available here). O’Connell also told the Irish Times that the sculpture was destroyed by Kinsale UDC in contravention of the Berne Convention for the protection of Literary and Artistic Works when it  painted the surface and added water features, railings, flower pots and barriers against the artist’s wishes.

30 years on, little has changed, except for the level of opposition to the destruction of public artworks by leading Irish artists. The campaign to remove what is left of O’Connell’s sculpture continues intermittently and Michael Warren’s “Gateway” has been removed with little or no controversy. Significantly, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLRCC) has refused to comment, despite the fact that it has an arts office thats administers a public art scheme and is responsible for promoting contemporary arts in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown.

REPRO FREE Haley O'Sullivan 2013 Rose of Tralee with New Zealand Rose Lisa Bazalo , Western Canada Catherine Joyce , Donegal Rose Tamara Payne , Texas Rose Cyndi Crowell , Washington Rose Allison Wetterauw and Perth Sinead Lehan . Roses and minister Donohoe TD arive to officially unveiled the Roses sculpture on the Tralee Bypass today . Photo By : Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD © Tralee Co Kerry Ireland Phone Mobile 087 / 2672033 L/Line 066 71 22 981 E/mail - info@dwalshphoto.ie www.dwalshphoto.com PRESS INFO - Minister Donohoe unveils Roses Sculpture on Tralee Bypass . Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport, Mr. Paschal Donohoe TD officially unveiled the Roses sculpture on the Tralee Bypass on Monday, August 18th 2014.ÔThe RosesÕ sculpture which consists of three red roses on their stems was created by Mayo sculptor, Rory Breslin, as part of the Percent for Art Scheme for the Tralee Bypass. Kerry County Council also provided funding for the project.Situated beside the roundabout linking the Tralee Bypass to the N22 Killarney road, the Roses sculpture highlights the well-known symbol of the Tralee area. It also links to the famous Rose of Tralee song which speaks of William MulchinockÕs love for Mary OÕConnor, who was employed a maid by the Mulchinock family.Speaking at the official unveiling of the sculpture, Minister Donohoe congratulated all involved in both the construction of the Tralee Bypass and also in the creation of the sculpture. The Minister pointed to the success of the Tralee Bypass in diverting through traffic from Tralee town centre and reducing travel times for motorists in the area.Speaking at the unveiling Minister Donohoe said: ÔIt is important that we continue to support our artists through the Precent for Art scheme, which allows for a portion of the cost of a public infrastructure project to be ring-fenced for the commissioning of a work of art. ÒIconic installations such as this very quickly become a symbol of the area, and t

Unveiling the “Roses” sculpture located on the newly opened Tralee bypass .
Photo By : Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD ©

Has Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council turned its back on ambitious public art works like “Gateway”?  Or is it staying quite in the face of opposition from elected representatives? It’s  hard to say but the destruction of Michael Warren’s sculpture raises – again – the issue of what constitutes “public” art.  The experience around the country is that local authorities and their arts offices – effectively operating as subsidiaries of the Arts Council – are promoting a particular type of public art, a populist strategy that has seen the proliferation of monumental works or “statues” that have little to do with contemporary Irish art. You could call it the ‘Molly Malone’ effect, public art that has more to do with tourism than art. The recently unveiled  “Roses” sculpture (a €70,000 commission) is typical of this trend, a trend that goes against the original objectives of the Per Cent for Art Scheme and represents a monumental failure of local authorities in respect of their remit to promote the arts a county level.

Is it art? some monumental errors in Kerry

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Town Park, Tralee.

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Tralee

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Charlie Chaplin in Waterville

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