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Art, Antiques & Museums Arts & Culture

Still Life in a Glass Forest

  • July 3, 2023
  • 5 min read

By Simon Tait

Sculpture in the City, says Will Gompertz, artistic director of the Barbican Centre who also has oversight of the City of London’s cultural profile, is “telling the story of the present and future while reflecting on the past”. 
 
He sees the 18 sculptures just unveiled dotted around the Bishopsgate neighbourhood of the City as evoking some of the history of the place going back to the Romans’ arrival here in 43BC, to the present age in which a steepling forest of glass and steel dwarfs human life at its feet. 
 
In those distant Roman days, of course, Londinium was of comfortable people size, a wood and brick town whose fortunes were governed by the trade on the river beside it. Now the City’s riches are largely virtual, trading happening sometimes dozens of storeys into the sky, the land below a kind of bustling desert of anonymity.
 
Sculpture in the City (SitC) was devised a dozen years ago to bring a humanising influence to the stalking and largely soulless architecture of the 21st century, amid what seems the endless activity of cranes hundreds of metres above the ground. SitC is funded by the City entrepreneurs themselves who, in these post-pandemic days, would surely love to entice their workers back to their offices within the business communities, which have been given personalities by the work of contemporary artists, and they have donated the sites.
 
The artists are drawn from around the world by SitC’s curator, Stella Ioannou, a multi disciplined creative, an architect who trained as a dancer and who in 2010. founded Lacuna, the studio set-up that specialises in contemporary art and events in public places. Her purpose with SitC, she says, is to give air to emerging talent with existing works seen in unconventional spaces, outlining “the City’s dynamic urban spaces in dialogue with contemporary art”.
 
There is no budget to commission work, but a submission of existing pieces from across the globe – this year there were 447 bids – gives the advisory panel a wide choice. The panel is made up of experts such Iwona Blazwick, the former director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery just a few hundred yards from the SitC sites, the Barbican’s curator, Lotte Johnson, and Tate’s Andrea Schlieker, who was the first curator of the Folkestone Triennial, which introduced the idea of a temporary public art exhibition around an urban space.
 
There is also input from the Corporation selecting the sites around the area, over which Ioannou then consults with the artists. Their pieces will be on show until April, with two remaining, having been bought by the City. So in this 12th edition of the annual free show there are 18 pieces by 17 artists from ten countries, and nine of them are new works adding to those that have been kept from previous years – in the first year there were just four including Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie. Several of the approved submissions are not included because the right site couldn’t be found for them. 
 
In a short time, the art becomes street furniture, familiar in a way it never could be in a gallery with children climbing on it, bikes leaning against it, rubbish tossed into it.
 
Phyllida Barlow, who died in March, has her first piece in the selection. Her untitled: megaphone at Crosby Square is a six-metre tall pole with a megaphone made from woven timber at its top, what she called a representation. One of the most popular new pieces is going to be at Undershaft with Simeon Barclay’s Pittu Pithu Pitoo, a playful grey pile of fiberglass boulders with a colourful cockerel perched at its summit, already nicknamed “The Cock on the Rock”. Larry Bell’s Pacific Red (IV) at 100 Bishopsgate is actually a deep pink 1.83m tall glass tank with a smaller one inside, which iridescence on its Bishopsgate surrounds as the light changes through the day. With it, Ioannou admits, goes a small troop of council cleaners on hand armed with step ladders and fruit picker sticks to empty the piece of the crushed drinks cans, polystyrene hamburger boxes and apple cores that will accrue each day. 
 
Arturo Herrera has two works, one on the underside of two escalators on the Leadenhall Building and the other a 21m high abstract explosion of colour bringing a smile to the face of an otherwise grim Creechurch Lane building with the Gherkin towering above, while at 20 Fenchurch Street you have to look up to see Mika Rottenbergh’s for Untitled Ceiling Projection in which a woman is seen smashing colourful but now obsolete light bulbs, eternally destroying the proverbial glass ceiling. Back at the Leadenhall Building, a glance high on the wall is met by Emma Smith’s apparent failing neon piece in which the letters flicker and change from reading “WE ARE ALL ONE” to “WE ARE ALONE”.
 
There is life in the City, asserts this SitC, and even in the roadside trees where Victor Lim Seaward’s Nest Series is a group of hanging forms that echo the shape of the beech tree leaves, but are actually functional bird boxes. In the yard of Shakespeare’s parish church, St Helen’s, the late American sculptor Iasmu Noguchi made his SitC debut with the three-piece galvanised steel Rain Mountain, Duo, Neo-Lithic, his metaphor for industrialisation in the most pastoral nook in this business land. 
 
It is an appealing way to see a City that at first seems to offer nothing to the visual observer, but actually has crannies that these works of art point you to, and a theme that will undoubtedly be seen more and more as our urban centres come back to life post-pandemic, and a chance to be aware of what our artists, established and emerging, are thinking.
https://www.sculptureinthecity.org.uk/

Image: Arturo Herrera Untitled, 2020 © Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York. Photo © Nick Turpin

About Author

Simon Tait

Simon Tait, former arts correspondent of The Times, writer on arts and heritage for national newspapers since 1985, president of the Critics’ Circle 2012-14, author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton RA, editor Arts Industry Magazine.

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