Angel Of The South

February 16, 2013 by  

Angel Of The South, Perhaps it’s because I spent the last few days looking at the work of Marcel Duchamp that I feel horrified by the latest commission in Britain’s apparently insatiable quest to build the biggest, most imposing, most monstrously public work of art.

The Angel of the South, planned as a “landmark sculpture” to tell everyone the location of a new transport hub at Ebbsfleet, Kent, is going to be taller than Gateshead’s Angel of the North. Doubtless there will eventually be Angels of the east and west. If they live up to the nickname, Britain will resemble a Norse fantasy landscape dreamt up by JRR Tolkien, Richard Wagner … and Rachel Whiteread.

It’s strange, and a bit sad, to see Whiteread among the shortlisted artists. Why sad? Wouldn’t it be great to have a grand permanent sculpture by the creator of House, the most poetic of all recent British sculptures, unveiled and demolished in 1993? And yet the transition from House to whatever she proposes for Ebbsfleet is not the happy story it might seem to a PR for our hyperinflated art scene. In Britain in the early 1990s, there was something unpredictable and dangerous about the art suddenly demanding public attention. Whiteread’s cast of an East End terraced house was never intended to please everyone. It was enigmatic, surreal – and hated by enough people for Bow Council to get away with destroying it.

The subversives are on the inside now, pissing out from a great height – 40 metres, “twice as high as the Angel of the North”. Whiteread’s fellow contenders are all, like her, better known for conceptual nuance than brassy monumentalism: Mark Wallinger, Richard Deacon, Daniel Buren and Christopher Le Brun. Presumably the integrity of them all (no Marc Quinn or Ron Mueck, that’s a blessing) guarantees a tasteful and intelligent monolith. But why? As someone wrote moronically on House, “Wot for?”

Remember Marcel Duchamp? The man who kept a bike wheel on a stool in his studio because he liked to see it spin? By the time he thought to tell his sister Suzanne that, by the way, it was a work of art, she’d already chucked it away. Duchamp is taken as the pattern of today’s career artists yet gave away his “readymades”. He made art to be free. It is impossible to imagine him, or for that matter any modern great, doing anything as serious, as stupid, as non-ephemeral as compete for the Ebbsfleet commission. What has happened to artists? Why do they want to do something best left to corporate hacks?

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