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Every now and then Michael Condron emails those who’ve taken a previous interest in his sculptures with news of his latest creations. You may recall that he is the artist who created the sculpture “Progression” for Basildon Town Centre, which was later moved by the local council in an act not far short of municipal vandalism:

"Progression" - Michael Condron

“Progression” – Michael Condron

He has certainly been busy, creating a series of exciting and beautiful designs for very varied audiences. The gallery below uses the pictures in his newsletter, reproduced here with permission. I am also cribbing his text for the descriptions.

  1. The History Tree is a collaborative public art project with Anne Schwegmann-Fielding for Kent’s new central library & archive.   Rising up the library wall is a polished stainless steel sapling, sculpted to depict life through all seasons. LED lighting illuminates the artwork at night, with strands of colour leading up the trunk of the sculpture. Work is now under way on the paved “shadow” tree, extending across the paving at the foot of the wall artwork. Its leaves are engraved metal, with text and images to reflect the history of Kent and the thoughts and memories of its people.  These stories were gathered through a programme of art workshops across the County. Participants drew, wrote, etched and sculpted their experiences of Kent in a variety of media.
  2. As part of the History Tree project Michael has created a flurry of mosaic leaves to set along the frontage with gorgeous coloured glass mosaic. A way-marking scheme is to follow, with leaf trails along pedestrian routes to the new library.
  3. He was commissioned to make a sculpture for a Civil War heritage site in Newark.  The “Queen’s Sconce” is a large 18th century cannon emplacement earthwork set up by the royalist defenders of Newark.  Usually, these things were destroyed by the victors, but thanks to a bout of plague at that time, the attacking forces moved on sharpish.  So Newark has one of the best surviving examples of this structure in the UK.
  4. After consulting with Newark’s museum services and local residents, he developed a design and created the Royalist Cannon.
  5. The surface of the artwork is a decorative design using images and phrases from the Royalist side. Heraldic emblems from King Charles I’s and Newark’s town crests are combined and woven together to form the surface detail.
  6. He was also asked to create artwork for the new footbridge that links the monument to the “mainland”. In the design a chained portcullis representing the Parliamentarians flows towards the centre of the bridge, meeting strands of fleurs-de-lis, ermine and other imagery from Charles I’s coat of arms at the “sconce” end.  The curve of the bridge is based on the trajectory of a cannonball.
  7. Molecular is a commission for King’s College Hospital in London
  8. Each sphere in Molecular is made up of a variety of figures supporting each other. This artwork was developed with Acrylicize, a design company he worked with on his Braintree Hospital sculpture.
  9. Finally, he created a piece for Standlake primary school in Oxfordshire. The children made drawings for their new Peace Garden and the sculpture incorporates their ideas in its surface detail.

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I’ve mentioned my love of illusions before.

One of the things that has captivated me since I first stumbled across it online is that genre of art where artists compose 3D illusions on pavements, usually out of chalk. There is something genuinely fascinating about the way the brain tricks the eye and some of the pictures are simply genius.

A number of those below are by the Belgium-based British artist Julian Beever, whose work has become world-renowned. According to his own website, he has been creating street art like this for over twenty years. However, it’s only in the age of the Internet, that people have been able to showcase work that is often ephemeral, washed away with the next big downpour.

The YouTube clip, below the gallery, shows the construction and reaction to a piece of work created in the centre of Stolkholm by Erik Johansson, a Swedish artist. His giant artwork was covered by various newspapers around the world, including Metro.

For all its beauty, street art remains controversial, being regarded by many as graffiti. I enjoy the anarchic beauty of it, however, and its potential for breaking up the grey angularity of so many of our modern urban spaces.

Enjoy.

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Michael Condron emailed today with details of his latest sculptures.

Interested readers, and particularly those in the Basildon Arts Collective, may recall that at the height of the furore surrounding The Woodsman I blogged on several occasions about Condron’s works of public art, bemoaning the treatment meted out to Progression.

I’ve extracted the photographs from his email and placed them in the gallery below.

Enjoy them, admire them and appreciate a quite extraordinary local talent. And then question why it is that Basildon’s Conservative administration have consistently demonstrated such hostility to public art, including Condron’s own Progression.

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There is something excruciatingly emotional about the loneliness of buildings abandoned to decay. I touched on it in my previous post Cold War ghosts: legacies in concrete and film and thought it a fairly solitary interest of mine.

I was completely wrong.

Sitting on the train tonight, and casually flicking through the Evening Standard, I came across an article on the UrbEx movement – UrbEx short for ‘Urban Exploration’. UrbExers combine a passion for adventure and exploration with a love of crumbling urban landscapes, testing the boundaries of the law in terms of trespass and safety. Regardless of your view of this last particular aspect, the results of their efforts can be startlingly beautiful and moving, capturing that sense of past lives that haunts abandoned buildings.

The Standard’s definition of UrbEx is succinct:

“Urban Exploration is the art of gaining access to parts of the city that are off-limits, including catacombs, tunnels, abandoned industrial sites and old municipal buildings. This often involves trespassing but rarely breaking and entering, as true UrbExers make their way in through existing breaches and frown upon theft. If caught, they will usually be escorted from the premises without prosecution. Dangers such as rotting floors, asbestos and faulty electrics are set against the adrenaline of discovery. Most UrbExers are keen photographers, drawn to the beauty of decay and, as Scott Cadman says, “being as far away from other people as possible”.

Cadman is a seasoned UrbExer with a stunning gallery of photographs. His series on West Park Mental Hospital are particularly amazing – click on the corridor picture below to see his UrbEx collection:

Corridor - West Park Mental Hospital

Corridor - West Park Mental Hospital, Scott Cadman

Flickr is host to dozens of UrbEx collections, many of which are pooled. Both urban explorers and UrBexer’s (Urban Exploration) are two such pools worth checking out if you find yourself mesmerised as I do by these broken, empty buildings.

Thierry Buysse is a Belgian UrbExer whose website is simply stunning. Closer to home, urbex|uk is a stylishly minimalist site that highlights some of the UK’s most striking abandoned buildings. There are even UK forums such as 28dayslater where enthusiasts can discuss different sites.

And the cross-over into art doesn’t end with photography.

Urban Explorers: Into The Dark is an award-winning  U.S. documentary. Even if you never get around to watching the film, you can see it clipped on CBS:

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At last night’s Council Meeting I moved the following motion (see item 13):

“The Council welcomes the demonstration of public support for reinstating The Woodsman in St Martin’s Square, recognises the talent and generosity of Dave Chapple in giving “The Woodsman” to the people of Basildon, and commits to its restoration and reinstatement in St Martin’s Square at the earliest practical opportunity.”

I regretted that no administration had looked after “The Woodsman”. However, I pointed out that “The Woodsman’s continuing neglect, taken together with what they had done to other pieces of public art and Cllr Tony Ball’s comments on the funding of “Progression”, showed that the Conservative Party in Basildon (not nationally) had a clear position: they are not supportive of public art. I said that this seemed inconsistent with their Conservative colleagues at County Hall, their own press release and survey – and the public response on Facebook to “The Woodsman”. (I pointed out that “The Woodsman” had more than ten times more friends on Facebook than Stephen Metcalfe, the Conservative PPC, on his campaign page – and that the page for “The Woodsman” had only been running for a few weeks.)

The public survey is very interesting.

As you can see, response was low.  220 people offered an opinion. (I’ll state it again, despite the Council saying this survey had wide coverage, I saw nothing and so didn’t take part.) However, whilst it does show that 74% of people thought “The Woodsman” should be replaced, it also showed that a majority of people wanted a piece of public art in St Martin’s Square: either “The Woodsman”, another piece by Dave or a newly commissioned piece of public art. Just to be clear, I say a majority as if you take the totals for “The Woodsman”, “King Edgar’s Head” and a new piece of public art you get 130. That is 59% of 220 – a majority. Sadly, though, I suspect this survey was just another cynical manipulation of figures to present the result they wanted: “The Woodsman” gone and purple squid lights installed instead. (They are actually going to be putting the Town Clock where “The Woodsman” used to be. It’s a marvellous and unique piece of engineering, as Cllr Horgan said, but surely it should be put back in the Town Centre – where it was designed to be?)

Whatever people’s views on public art in general, I made the argument that “The Woodsman” was different: made from material from Basildon, made in Basildon, by an artist from Basildon, in front of people from Basildon and then handed over to Basildon – for free.

Finally, earlier in the meeting, Cllr Ball, talking on another item, had said that his Conservative Council was a listening administration and that they would hear what the people wanted and then deliver. I concluded by reminding the Council of what he had said, pointing out that 162 people had said take “The Woodsman” down in their consultation – but more than 1500 people were now asking for it to be put back. The people would be waiting for him to listen and deliver.

The Conservative Councillors commended Dave Chapple on his work. However, during the meeting I was accused of electioneering, making politics out of “The Woodsman”, and was told that the Conservative administration would take no lessons on support for public art as they had repaired the “Mother and Child” fountain.  I was also told that that Dave had always wanted to see “The Woodsman” in Wat Tyler. They had consulted the public – and the public had asked for it to be taken down (all 162 of them).

The motion was defeated with every single Conservative Councillor present voting against – the three Liberal Democrats and the Labour Councillors present voting for.

I am a little wrung out with it all now to be honest. How sad to think that we are in this mess because no-one could be bothered to put a bit of teak oil on “The Woodsman” as Dave had requested.

I didn’t know Dave and I don’t know his family. I know one or two of his friends, but not very well. I simply want to see the “The Woodsman” repaired and restored and put back on display, either in St Martin’s Square or a suitable location that is actually in the town, not tucked away like some unofficial sculpture museum (graveyard?).

Let’s hope that the years of neglect have not left it damaged beyond repair.

And if they are not going to put him back, at least listen to what the majority of respondents were telling the Council in that survey: they want a piece of public art there.

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You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I posted a picture of the “Mother and Child” statue in Basildon Town Centre covered in ice. Thursday morning I was in Basildon very early and the statue looked spectacular. I thought it worth sharing a picture.

“Mother and Child” iced over again

“Mother and Child” iced over again

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Those who are interested in “The Woodsman” may wish to know that at the next Council meeting (18 February 2010 at 6pm) I will be moving the following motion for discussion:

“The Council welcomes the demonstration of public support for reinstating The Woodsman in St Martin’s Square, recognises the talent and generosity of Dave Chapple in giving The Woodsman to the people of Basildon, and commits to its restoration and reinstatement in St Martin’s Square at the earliest practical opportunity.”

It is the last item on the meeting’s agenda – and the agenda is a very long one as it will also deal with setting the level of Council Tax (there is therefore a danger that it might not be reached).

The Council meets in the St George’s Suite and it is a meeting open to the public (public question time is the first item on the agenda – questions have to be submitted in writing three days before (the deadline is usually regarded as 10am on Monday).

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Following my post on “Progression” and “The Woodsman” I made contact with the artist Michael Condron, the sculptor commissioned by Basildon Council to make “Progression”. I thought it courteous to draw his attention to the fact I was blogging about his work. His response – which he is happy for me to share – is an extraordinary and depressing indictment of the lack of courtesy and general ignorance of Basildon Council (and by extension its Conservative administration) in its dealings with artists and issues of public art:

“The attitude Basildon DC has shown towards it’s public art is pretty extraordinary, and fortunately not the kind of behaviour I’ve come across elsewhere.

The relocation of my Progression sculpture was not something I was consulted on.  Whilst I’m not entirely happy with the new situation, it is better than the artwork rotting in a storage yard somewhere.

You mentioned NYC’s percent for art programme in the blog, and I wonder if you’re aware that Essex County Council also has a percent for art policy.  Many commissions have been funded by developers through “section 106” planning requirements, including my recent Life Cycle installation at Hanningfield reservoir.

Generally speaking public art is vibrant in Essex!”

What is particularly depressing is that, whilst Basildon’s Conservatives neglect and rip out our public art, the record of Essex County Council, another Conservative administration, is a national leader when it comes to supporting public art. As Condron notes, Essex does indeed operate a percent policy for art. Art in the Open singles out Essex as its case study for best practice in “embedding public art within Council-led capital projects”. The page on commissioning guidance states:

“Essex County Council (ECC) has been commissioning art in the public realm as part of its Capital Development Programme and Essex Design Initiative for many years.  It was the first County Council to develop and adopt the principle of a public art policy in the late 1980s.  In 2002 it adopted a Percent for Art policy and, more recently, has developed a central budgeting process to create a new fund, the Public Art Common Fund, that draws money directly from ECC’s capital programmes budget, enabling the public arts team to plan longer term.  This has lead to the development of a three-year programme of more substantial commissions under the banner of ‘Genius Loci’ (‘Spirit of Place’).  These commissions are predominantly permanent but also include some temporary work to help highlight and pave the way for the permanent.”

What’s more, Essex demonstrates that it truly understands the purpose of public art:

“ECC seeks to commission art in the public realm to:

  • Improve the aesthetics of the built environment
  • Enhance a sense of community and place
  • Foster community pride and ownership
  • Celebrate artistic achievement
  • Reflect a ‘spirit of place’”

To demonstrate how serious Essex is about supporting public art, Art in the Open explains how the County Council organises the staff that support public art:

“ECC believes in an embedded and informed approach to commissioning art in the public realm.  It runs workshops and organises study trips to support internal development and understanding; the public art team sits within the built environment department, ensuring a close working relationship across planning and development teams; a Public Art Strategy Group, chaired by a cabinet member and including officers from across the council, helps keep an informed overview; occasionally, external organisations are brought in to provide additional commissioning support.”

And the big question in local government is always the money:

“Funding streams:

  • Percent for Art: up to 1 per cent of almost all capital builds across the council. This has been consolidated for 2007-2010 as the Public Art Common Fund where 0.74 per cent, £2.14 million, has been designate for Genius Loci. The continuation of the Common Fund beyond 2010 is subject to approval by the Council and is depended on a successful bid from the Public Art Team.
  • Money can also be brought in through section 106 (however, this mechanism is dependent on the policy of the local planning authority not the County Council).”

To be honest, it is a pretty extraordinary commitment from a local authority and I applaud Essex’s seriousness in making public art accessible and relevant – not shoved away in corners as museum pieces to be visited.

So why is it, with such a leading example so politically and geographically close to home, that Basildon’s Conservative Party acts like a Neanderthal collective when it comes to  public art? I can’t answer that. However, I can only think that the “pretty extraordinary” attitude identified by Condron was a principal contributing factor to the appalling ruin of “The Woodsman”.

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For those who have been following the story of “The Woodsman” there is now a petition running on ipetitions to show support for its restoration and reinstatement in St Martin’s Square, Basildon. Signing it only takes a few moments. There is also a drop-down question box on whether or not you live in Basildon or are simply concerned about “The Woodsman”/public art.

Sign the petition on “The Woodsman” now!

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"Progression" - Michael Condron

“Progression” – Michael Condron

It is sobering to realise how quickly things fade from the memory.

The controversy surrounding “The Woodsman” and an emailed comment from a friend in Basildon Choral Society has reminded me of the fate of “Progression”, the sculpture created by another exciting Essex artist. Ten years ago, Rochford-born sculptor Michael Condron was commissioned by the Council to create a piece of work to celebrate Basildon’s journey into the new Millennium. The general nature of Condron’s work  is summarised well on the website of Chelmsford Borough Council:

“Michael Condron is a sculptor whose principal aim is to make artwork that belongs to its place. A common theme running throughout his work is a sense of fun and discovery. His sculptures can be interactive, responding to the viewer’s presence with sound, movement, light and even bubbles!”

From even that brief description it is clear that his creations are intended to be touched not just looked at. His installations are almost performance pieces, challenging young and old to explore their physicality as well as admire their lines and designs. That this was intended for “Progression” is borne out by the detailed design information that is available on Condron’s website:

“The sculpture will require little maintenance beyond routine inspection, being robust enough to withstand vandalism, people climbing, etc. Any dirt/graffiti can easily be cleaned by Basildon District Council’s normal maintenance contractors. As the sculptures are set at ground level, the surrounding grass will need to be cut with care. A nylon cord strimmer should be used close to the sculpture to prevent damage.”

Interestingly, the issue of health and safety, the reason so often cited for its removal, was addressed throughout:

“The Artist liaised with Basildon District Council to ensure that any Health and Safety concerns over the design were addressed, including edges, projecting parts, trip and slip hazards.”

The biggest controversy surrounding “Progression” centred on its cost. The Conservative opposition said that spending £25,000 of public money on public art was a waste of money. Instead, Cllr Tony Ball said that the money should be spent on Wickford Citizen’s Advice Bureau and Billericay Citizen’s Advice Bureau who, at the time, faced a cash funding crisis.

Thankfully, they are both still there doing a very important job.

“Progression” is not.

In the story linked above, Cllr Ball makes the following comment:

“We are not against the art – but the cash should be from private sponsorship.”

Personally, I disagree. I believe that public art fulfils an important purpose, in the same way other facilities do. Public art makes the places we live in less severe, breaking up their harsh anonymous lines. It helps create a unique sense of identity.

Other places have been far more welcoming of publicly-commissioned art installed in public spaces. Sticking with Condron, in Woking, his “Martian” has been hailed by visitors as a masterpiece and draws on the local heritage of H. G. Wells. In Slough, he worked with Beechwood School to mark its relocation, creating “Moving On” from pieces of steel cut according to outline drawings of pupils’ feet.

Elsewhere in Essex, his “Timeline” was the result of a commission from the Essex Records Office. The Colchester and Tendering Hospital Arts Project commissioned him to create “Tube Figures”, a series of sculpted figures installed around their hospital sites.  Even the County Council commissioned Condron – after “Progression” was installed.

Elsewhere, the importance of public art is recognised in law. In New York, that bastion of socialism, there is a 1% rule:

“In 1982, the Percent for Art law was initiated by Mayor Edward I. Koch and passed by the Council of the City of New York requiring that one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for City facilities.”

In Norway, which also has statutory funding requirements in respect of public buildings, the government has a professional body for public art (KORO) with a clear statement of purpose:

“Art expresses human creativity and originality. Through art, reality is adapted in order to convey new experiences, new understandings and new insights. Producing art for public spaces is a way of expressing a democratic idea that upholds the right of every person to experience art.”

In the course of my professional work I have had reason to visit Norway and have held discussions with senior public figures regarding the role of public art in promoting health and well-being. I had the good fortune to be shown around a new hospital being built, in which each room was carefully decorated and the communal spaces were filled with beautiful works of public art. The feeling of peaceful recuperation was palpable. (There was even a piano, regularly tuned and maintained, for patients, visitors or staff to play.)

In its own small way, “The Woodsman” did just that. It broke up the harsh lines of the commercial space around it and reminded us of softer, greener and older places – and reminded us that we each have the right to experience art. Experience is an important word, too. It is not about ‘liking’, though many of us loved “The Woodsman”. ‘Dislike’ is important in creating a discussion, getting us engaged in the debate about how our environment should look.

Where is that discussion in Basildon?

Ten years’ on from “Progression”, public art produced in Basildon, for Basildon, by a Basildon artist, is now rotting in an anonymous yard.

£38 million can be spent furthering the sporting interests of the district, but the Council is not even prepared to spend the few thousand necessary to restore “The Woodsman” to the space it was made for (and made in).

And whilst “The Woodsman” lies open to the elements, but closed to the public, what of Condron’s “Progression”? This piece, a work that was designed to “withstand climbing, swinging, vandalism or the elements”, is also in Wat Tyler Country Park, fenced off from the public like some museum piece.

This tale of two sculptures is also the story of the diminution of Wat Tyler Country Park. Wat Tyler has its own identity, its own story to tell of struggles ancient and modern.  It shouldn’t become the repository of Basildon District Council’s public art – where you have to make a visit to see it and admire it from afar.

The more I think about it, the more Friday’s symbolic funeral wreath, which could have been mocked for its mawkishness and sentimentality, captures a vital idea – the sad passing away of public art in Basildon.

I would challenge those who are “not against the art” to say otherwise.

For those who are interested in Condron’s work, I have pulled together a gallery on Flickr from publicly available pictures. It is predominantly made up of shots of his three-piece “War of the Worlds” installation in Woking – you can find examples of his other work on the links above.

If you want to find out more about public art in general, Wikipedia has a very good entry which should serve as a useful starting point. Public art online is a leading UK website which covers information from across the country as well as internationally. Artquest has a very interesting section entitled Government Policies and the Arts which looks at the statutory framework regarding public art in different countries. It also contains a free library of legal information for artists on its Artlaw subsite. There is also a directory of public art which contains news of new installations as well as a growing collection of public art from around the globe.

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