Lately, I have been reconsidering much in terms of the past, present and future of the visual arts. More particularly, the Covid-19 variations (sounds musical), and even more ominously, the climate crisis, are increasingly - and not incrementally - altering our lives for the future. Combine this with escalating global tensions and it’s not a pretty picture, in fact, it’s just about beyond contemplation for us mere mortals.
Politicians on the other hand, largely seem to play out a pantomime which tries to persuade us that they can navigate their national super tankers around the hairpins of an alpine pass. In the midst of all this, I would argue that human culture is in the process of a seismic shift also. My own litmus for this view is perhaps most persuaded by how my feelings towards some of my very favourite contemporary artworks have changed; take for example, Antony Gormley’s extraordinary Angel of the North (1998), a truly totemic landmark work, at once a talisman for the industrial heritage of the North of England and an attraction in itself due to its scale and physical force. But as we pick up the environmental impact tab for global industrialisation and of heavy industry, suddenly, to me, a sculpture on this scale, of such material volume and facture, seems slightly obscene, implicated in a culture of the maximal that has come to glorify big as beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, for the last 23 years since this work was installed at Tyne and Wear, I have adored it, so what has changed? Me perhaps? The sculpture? Barely, but its context has altered completely; I would argue that the mood music has not only altered but changed to the extent that the work starts to become sadly tone deaf. At this point, I am sure I will be accused of being woke of course.
If you doubt me on this, think of your own favourite, materially seismic contemporary work and see if you feel the same as you did 3 years ago? Whether it's Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, or Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, I challenge you just to contemplate for one moment. Digital Orca (2009) by Douglas Coupland at Cypress Provincial Park near Vancouver, seems to add insult to injury, whilst Koons Red Balloon Flower in NYC, seems not only to have an inflated (sic) sense of itself, but also of its importance. Not to even mention César Baldaccini of course.
Of course, you may think me unkind in my feelings, or indeed unfair in taking this view, and you may be right, but the world has changed and is continuing to change in ways that will implicate public or large-scale art for the foreseeable future.
You will have noted too, that the names/works I have cited thus far are predominantly male; this may be an accident of history, but actually, public sculpture at large scale has always had a whiff of the heroic, being somewhat at the macho end of the plastic arts. I suppose one could counter my assertion by implicating female sculptors who have operated at such large scale, but for every Niki de Sant Phalle, Louise Bourgeois or Dame Rachel Whiteread, I think you’ll find twenty or 30 male counterparts. David Smith, Damien Hirst, Sir Anthony Caro, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, and perhaps the daddy of them all, Sir Henry Moore. It is a long list.
It is worth mentioning the notable exceptions here also that prove the rule, Richard Long and James Turrell stand out in every respect in terms of output and endurance. I guess what I am laying down here is a breadcrumb trail for artists to come, a challenge to think through the implications of making at scale or otherwise in terms of the arts’ contribution to carbon and climate change. I recently had a rather heated discussion with a group of Computer Games Design and Visual Effects (VFX) students who took great pleasure in telling me that their carbon footprint was zero in comparison to artists until I pointed out that the production of their super powerful computers and cloud-based apps consumed energy in swathes. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…’ as they say.
But this is not the end of it, nor even really the beginning of a long-overdue discussion regarding the arts’ contribution to climate crisis, think for instance about international art fairs, large scale touring exhibitions…I could, and will likely go on as a follow-up. And it is too easy to advocate that art should return to the still life of portraiture as a de minimis template, totalitarianism by proxy. I think there is a real need for a debate here as artists and humanity struggles to come to terms with a decade and a century that may well prove pivotal for what comes next.