Cultures Visual Arts

Public Art: Appreciating Art in a Time of Closed Galleries

Our beloved galleries may be closed but take heart— the Rubenesque lady has not sung, the curtains are not drawn! Let us draw our eager eyes towards art outside the walls of established institutions. Now is the time to appreciate the too-often overlooked spectacle of Public Art. 

A statement by the Greek painter, El Greco comes to mind: “art is everywhere you look for it”. This statement grazes upon the age-old question of ‘what constitutes art?’, but let’s not be thrown into an existential spiral from this (as had been when asked the very question during my Oxford interview). Instead, El Greco’s fabled line is most fittingly taken in the literal sense: art objects are all around us, pervasively plopped about in the open air and there for all to enjoy. 

My local example of such – this is to all you Londoners – is the Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth. The structure itself has become a formidable and dynamic stage for rotating pieces of public art. The plinth, erected in 1841, was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, but due to insufficient funds it remained empty. After much debate and experimentation, in 2003 it became a stage to display a rolling programme of temporary artworks.  

The current artwork crowning the plinth since 26 March 2020 is by Heather Phillipson, titled, THE END. The sculpture depicts a colossal swirl of whipped cream topped with a cherry, a fly and a drone. 

It’s comically large and sugary form is haunted by it being seemingly on the verge of collapse. Its creamy appearance, the unbalanced cherry, and the fact that its display is only temporary, all contribute to the idea of an impending doom. 

The giant fly – a symbol of rot and decay – is evocative of memento mori: a reminder of the inevitability of death. Seen in the light of the pandemic, the work is terrifyingly apocalyptic. Whether it be commenting on the breaking down of society, the possible death of our art galleries (many on the edge of bankruptcy), or rather gruesomely, the human lives claimed by Covid-19, THE END is a work that instils a sense of worry. 

The rather out-of-place looking drone resting on the cream sends a live video feed to the artwork’s website. When this work was installed and the feed became live, the reputably bustling Trafalgar Square had become ghostly and empty as a result of the national lockdown. Timing could not have been better: the doomsday this work omened really had arrived, and it was caught on camera.

Although our cities are often populated with public artworks such as these, it can still be depressing passing the hollow shells of once-buzzing galleries. However, is there something to enjoy about these buildings without having to go inside? Have we ever considered these institutions as works of art in their own right? For instance, the Ashmolean Museum, designed by Charles Cockerell, boasts neo-classical-style architecture. Its architectural elements derive from antiquity, perhaps a nod towards the ancient roots of much of the Museum’s collection. The international scope of the Museum’s collection is also referenced by the basket-weave stonework that runs right around the outside, evocative of Byzantine architectural features. 

The architecture of galleries and museums is something often taken for granted, as we are too often distracted by what is inside of them. It may be an interesting and rewarding endeavour to examine the outside of these institutions, and ask, why is it done like that? Does it make sense that it is?

Now let’s consider something more obviously emotive: graffiti. The virus can’t stop street artists. 

In the beginning of lockdown in 2020, Shoreditch witnessed an outpouring of street art. One of the most prolific artists was Nathan Bowen, whose suitably masked characters appeared all over. One can also see his murals on Oxford Street, in Rotherhithe, and in Brick Lane. They carry hopeful messages such as ‘Stay Positive’ and ‘We Can Beat This Together’. But that was early on. 

Now, knee deep in our third lockdown, the mood has changed. On Christmas eve, the Oxford Circus tube station was covered in graffiti, the work attributed to the ‘Diabolical Dubstars’ graffiti group. Amongst the vibrantly scrawled messages were ‘Covid Lies’ and Anarchy symbols, demonstrating the outrage and even calling-to-action prompts against the government. 

The lack of regulation for street art is a direct window that can show us the raw emotions of the people. The city itself becomes a canvas for expression.

Many of us miss galleries like a lost lover. But it is often true that the cure to a broken heart is through a wandering eye. So, let’s open our eyes to what’s available out there – which is truly a lot. Let us indulge and explore. Let us fall in love with art that we passed by daily and never noticed. It is all there for us to enjoy. Because once again, as El Greco said, “art is everywhere you look for it”.