I haven’t seen the new art installation in City Square, “Making a Stand.” I don’t have much reason to go into town these days and the idea of getting on the number 16 bus especially to “have a bit of a sit down” beneath a structure made up of 127 vertical planks assembled around the Black Prince doesn’t particularly appeal. 

Apparently, I’m wrong to refer to the pieces of timber as “planks.” The correct term, I have just been informed, according to the official website for the project, is “fins.” That’s a new one on me. But then I don’t tend to hang around in many woodyards.

I hope the project does well. I wish it the best of luck and will probably have a mosey next time I visit the city centre. What really interests me though are the comments on Facebook regarding the “forest in Leeds city centre.” Specifically the vast discrepancy between the reactions expressed there and the “three different important themes we are encouraging people to think about as they pass through the square.”

The first theme Making a Stand hopes to make us think about is “using wood as a building material.” Wood is a great low carbon alternative to steel or concrete, and the wood used in the installation (fins!) will be repurposed into the construction industry when the project ends. Which is a very worthy consideration. I’ve been involved in many art projects where so much just ends in landfill, it’s good to see this built in from the start. The project hopes this will “promote conversations surrounding material life cycles.”

The second theme is all about “celebrating the beauty of engineering.” Erecting 127 seven-metre-tall floor boards (sorry, fins) vertically in a populated space at the mercy of our Yorkshire weather is genuinely an impressive achievement. They explain in more technical detail if you are interested. All I can say is it does look very safe.

The last theme is climate change. The structure “serves as a testament to protest: a quietly powerful disruption to the daily movement within the square.”

This theme is the one that’s generated the most conversation, though not in the way the artists could have anticipated.

Reading through the Facebook comments there’s hardly any mention of wood as a building material. It simply doesn’t concern anyone, stimulates not the slightest smidgeon of interest. 

The engineering aspect does provoke a couple of comments, though none of them complimentary. 

Most of the comments, I’d estimate over 90%, are definitely expressions of protest. But they are protesting against the “powerful disruption to the daily movement in the square,” not anything to do with environmental concerns or climate change. In fact, just the reverse.

I’ve read them several times now. And it could be the case that there’s some kind of selection bias going on; Facebook comments might come mainly from car drivers and the occasional disgruntled bus passenger. And we all know car drivers and the poor sods who have to deal with public transport in Leeds are never bloody happy. And they’ll moan about anything. Even something so irrelevant as a piece of public art that has absolutely no influence on the length of any rush hour traffic jam on Whitehall Road. The unfeasible amount of vehicles on the road is the cause of the traffic jam, not some artfully arranged lumber in the centre of city square.

So, yes, potentially it’s complaining commuters projecting their frustrations onto innocent fins.

But I have a suspicion that there’s an underlying problem with this sort of art, no matter how good, worthy and ideologically impeccable it is.

People don’t like art that’s done to them. At them. Over them.

Art that is done in spite of them.

And, sadly, this does seem to be how people feel about this installation.

I’ve spoken to a few people over the past couple of days, people who admittedly work in town and find the commute stressful, and the feeling does seem to be a general one. It’s often wrapped in comments about wastes of money, or indifferent bureaucrats, or woolly, pointless out-of-touch artists, but the underlying sentiment is against the sort of art that seems to have edifying designs on us, which provokes resentment.

This might pass. I hope it does. From what I can see from the pics it looks like a nice space. I’ll probably walk to town to see it. Perhaps that way it’ll feel like a good place to spend a few minutes. I might even have a few thoughts about how we could live more “symbiotically with nature,” whatever that may mean.

I’m not sure I’ll ever have anything to say about “material life cycles,” however.

One comment

  1. As someone who rather goes for the ordinary and banal and basically likes a quiet life, I must admit to being with some exceptions largely ambivalent about Public Art (Capitals because unlike Street Art it is not spontaneous or made by “outsiders”). At best I can see some “fun” in it or maybe have some aesthetic response but most I find trivial or at worst a garish intrusion.

    The other problem I have is that while it may be a good idea in principle to get Art out of the gallery and allow for new or experimental forms too often the “Art” is functional to some other purpose such as creating a “place identity” or as “place marketing” activity or as a tourist attraction.

    We can see this in the case of “Making a stand” which reflects the schizophrenia at the heart of Leeds 2023. In simple terms deciding to commission and sponsor this “environmental installation” provided by Michael Pinsky reflects both the desire to bring the work of eminent artist to Leeds (see also Sonia Boyce) in the slightly dated and patrician view of a local cultural lack and the notion that good art is good for people. But also, the desire in marketing terms to “put the city on the map” and enhance the tourist economy. Approaches which might be argued to be aiming in opposite directions (as does the whole programme) – both inwards and outwards at the same time.

    In a general way I think whatever had been put up in City Square by Leeds 2023 would have raised similar issues for some about what is this doing here and who is paying for it – ignoring what “Making a Stand” looks like and whether it is viewed as enhancing or obstructing.

    But in this case “Making a Stand” is not simply art for art’s sake something which stands only for itself – no no it must bear important contemporary liberal messages both from the artist and Leeds 2023. about sustainable building materials, about engineering about climate change, living with nature and added by Leeds 2023 something about the city’s historic roots in the medieval Leeds Forest. Most of these seem to be a bit obscure to the audience.

    Perhaps it would be better without this didacticism leaving the forms to speak for themselves so that people could make of them what they like or dislike. To some extent that is how public art of the 1950’s used to work, and no doubt people were equally perplexed if some abstract work was plonked down on their new estate.

    Unfortunately, we are no longer in that world and Public Art art must do its duty ideologically and economically whatever the reaction.

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