Love it or loathe it, public art has left its stamp on the region. As the most ambitious in the world takes shape at Middlesbrough, arts writer
His name was Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great and the superb originals and inferior reworkings have been discovered all over his empire. When you look at the face of ancient Egypt, you are usually looking at him.
Millions of visitors a year travel to marvel at his commissions in Egypt. Not quite as many come to gaze upon the Bottle of Notes in Middlesbrough, the Brick Train in Darlington or the Angel of the North hovering above the A1 in Gateshead. But the North East is no less bold in its public art ambitions.
Like it or not, you’ll find it everywhere, from Morpeth to Middlesbrough, South Tyneside to Stockton, Durham to Darlington, Berwick to Alnwick, Blyth, Gateshead, Hexham and Kielder – everything from the mighty Angel to curious contraptions on sponsored roundabouts. Depending on who you talk to, it can include war memorials, ornamental fountains and market crosses – even the interactive Spectra-Txt light tower in central Middlesbrough.
Now a new project is about to dwarf everything that has gone before.
Temenos, which will be all of 110m long and almost 50m high, is coming to Middlesbrough as part of the largest public art installation the world has ever seen. Costing £2.7m, it is the first of the Tees Valley Giants – five world-class art installations that will go up at a total cost of £15m in the five boroughs of the area – Stockton, Darlington, Hartlepool, and Redcar and Cleveland are the others.
It will be installed at Middlehaven alongside the Transporter Bridge and near to the Riverside Stadium and one of its funders is Middlesbrough FC, making the Boro the world’s first and only football club to be associated with such a sizeable piece of public art.
Boro’s chief operating officer Neil Bausor believes such projects have the power to “transform the image and reality of the area”.
“As proud standard bearers for the town and region, we are committed to supporting the ongoing regeneration of the town and are very much aligned with the Tees Valley Regeneration vision,” he says.
“World-class projects like Temenos are proof to national and regional communities that Middlesbrough has the ability to both achieve and surprise.” If all goes well, Temenos – a Greek word meaning land cut off and assigned as a sanctuary or holy area – will be suspended at Middlehaven by next summer.
The Greeks, of course, were also big fans of public art, but it was around long before they and indeed Ramesses stamped their images on the world. “Public art is a very old art form,” agrees Matthew Jarrett of Arts Council North East’s Commissions North. But what
exactly is the point of it? “To make a space more interesting,” says Matthew. “People have been making things to make somewhere special for years and we help it happen today by helping people find artists and artists find commissions. We do not fund art in the region – we help get it started.”
In the past two centuries, London, Paris and New York have set the pace as world leaders in public art, but other great cities have been eager to follow their lead.
In the 19th Century, the confident and growing industrial areas celebrated local heroes such as Earl Grey in Newcastle, ironmasters Bolckow and Vaughan in Middlesbrough and Joseph Pease in Darlington.
The rest of the modern world cottoned on to the idea of commissioned pieces of different styles of art much more quickly than we did. But though the North East got the message later than many other parts of Britain, it’s now at the forefront in bringing innovative concepts to the public stage.
Whatever the piece, wherever the place, public art is bound to stir up controversy.
Just look at the hoo-ha that surrounded the set of large, rusty, metal wings that took flight at Gateshead – the sneering opposition of councillors who later glowingly endorsed the now iconic Angel of the North, which elevated Newcastle’s poor relation to the world stage.
The arguments tend to turn on scale, site, size and budget, says Matthew Jarrett. But at the end of the day, it has to be appropriate to the setting. Take the Angel and the penguins on Redcar sea front. “You would not put the Angel on the site of the penguins or the penguins on the site of the Angel,” says Matthew. “They are both in the family of public art, but are productions with very different budgets and very different briefs.”
The Bottle of Notes and the Brick Train pre-date lottery funding, which was behind so many developments from the late Nineties onwards, including the Angel – a symbol of faith built almost entirely on the proceeds of luck. But now regeneration is driving the agenda, which is not entirely surprising because public art’s other great function – as our friend Ramesses was only too well aware – is to reinforce identity.
Tees Valley Regeneration is behind the giants starting with Temenos. Its stainless steel cables reflect the industrial heritage of Middlesbrough and the Tees Valley and its construction will call on the traditional skills of the region – precision engineering and heavy industry.
Sculptor Anish Kapoor conceived the design, while structural designer Cecil Balmond has to build it. The pair were also responsible for similar monumental creations in New York, Chicago and Bejing.
To aspire to put Middlesbrough on a similar platform to those great cities is ambitious indeed, but it speaks volumes of a new confidence in the region.
Boro’s Neil Bausor believes Temenos could be the catalyst for spectacular development of the Middlehaven site and the fact that it’s tempted Cecil, who used to work for Cleveland Bridge in Darlington before joining Arup, the structural engineers where he is now deputy chairman, back to the region would seem to endorse his faith in the power of public art.
On a personal note, Cecil says: “It’s nice to come back with a work in steel.”