Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Your City: Chiming Old with New

PLACE held a week long summer school in August and offered the 27 attendees aged 14 to 20 the opportunity to write a short text relating to their built environment. To coincide with the launch of the summer school exhibition entitled "Your City" PLACE will publish the articles by Senan Kelly and Finn MacMillan this week on the Blog.

The "Your City" exhibition launches Thursday 13th September from 6 - 7.30pm at PLACE, 40 Fountain Street, Belfast. Everyone is welcome and refreshments will be provided. The exhibition will display the images captured by disposable film cameras alongside a selection of models and sketchbooks by the participants.

Chiming Old with New By Finn MacMillan

Monday. The clock tower strikes eleven.

A late businesswoman runs hurriedly. An eager tourist takes a snap. A swift cyclist weaves around the clock with little notice of the thunderous chimes above him.

Albert Memorial Clock.

The Albert Clock evokes different responses. Whether we see it as a timekeeping tool, aesthetically picturesque or an obstacle in our path, our environment affects us all.

Begun in 1865 and completed in 1869, the clock tower is considerably older than its surrounding pieces of art, most of which are recent additions to Queen’s Square and adjoining Custom House Square. A statue of an animated speaker, a fountain, chiming metal panels in the pavement and a metallic structure holding a red sphere all meet in this public art hotspot of Belfast. Two ages, Victorian and Modern, collide. But the question arises whether these new additions relate to the old. Does old chime with new?

Certainly the sonorous quality of many of these pieces forms a connection. The splash of the fountain, the clink of metal plates and the suggested vociferousness of the bronze speaker waving his arms all acknowledge the presence of a clock tower’s chimes and add to the aural atmosphere of the area. 

It is unfortunate, however, that the visual cohesion is less so, a concern perhaps exemplified by the weak relationship between the Albert Clock and its adjacent metal sculpture holding a red sphere. Despite sharing strong verticality, both display a variety of differences that weaken the relationship between them. 

Albert Memorial Clock and Renewal.

Firstly, the most stark juxtaposition is the placement of a two metre sculpture alongside a soaring thirty-four metre clock tower. The sculpture’s comparatively small scale gives it a diminutive appearance and creates a feeling of disharmony. When considered alone, it is an engaging new piece, jovially reaching up to the sky. Yet sadly it exemplifies how poor placement of public art may lead to corrosion of potential appreciation. It is quite literally in the shadow of the clock tower. This raises a larger issue; it is a sculpture which responds little to its local environment. It lacks any discernible alignment with nearby streets, walkways and pedestrian underpasses. Being far from site specific, a scene of dissonance is presented to the businesswoman, the tourist or the cyclist. 


Secondly, incompatibility also lies in the materials and colours used. The coldness of the metal sculpture opposes the warm sandstone hue of the tower. The new sculpture’s modern sheen acknowledges neither the stonework nor the black railings of its surroundings. Perhaps gold would prove a more effective colour for the incongruous red sphere, a colour which would play upon that of the tower’s clock face and weather vane.

Thirdly, the treatment of space and mass is crucial to our understanding of the relationship between these pieces. On the one hand, the clock has strong solidity and conveys a sense of weight and volume. On the other, the sculpture’s wisps of metal, which interact with the air, suggest lightness and movement. The new piece fails to understand or appreciate the form of the old.

If, however, we look beyond these shortcomings we may in fact see a powerful thread which weaves these pieces of public art together. All public art essentially shares the same goal. At its most effective, public art should visually provoke, stimulate and above all engage the beholder, whether positively or negatively. And to this all of these artworks, new and old, stand testament.

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