Shooting over 60 sculptures in a day for our Sculptures of London project is exhausting work – as both Tom Maine and I can testify. And yet this is what we achieved on Sunday 11 June 2017 – before immediately heading on to rehearsals for our forthcoming fiction film,
This is Cinema.
In some senses, the day constitutes a sort of miniature version of the story told by the sculptures of London in general: it was defined by a large number of statues of figures, many monuments associated with war, and yet it also involved a series of abstract sculptures, and many of which invite interaction from passers-by.
Two works by John Maine perhaps summed up both of these strands of London sculpture: his ring-like war memorial on Islington Green and his Arena on the South Bank.
The war memorial suggests war, but not in a celebratory or heroic way – with a phallic statue. Instead, the ring that is the memorial’s centrepiece suggests something much more subtle, its twists suggesting pain as it resembles a wreath, while at the same time having a weight and beauty of its own. What is more, the way in which the ring becomes something like a Möbius strip also suggests the infinity, perhaps, of memory.
But where the Islington Memorial remains a monument that one looks at, Arena, on the other hand, is a piece that invites people to walk and to climb, maybe even to skateboard over. Set outside the National Theatre, it is a key feature of London’s South Bank, and it presents the kind of democratic and equalising vision of the city that we might think is fitting in the venue of the 1951 Festival of Britain.
Rather than being a ‘monumental’ sculpture, then, Arena perhaps even stops being a sculpture at all. Maybe it is better considered to be landscape design or just masonry. But even in challenging the border of sculpture, Arena reaffirms what art can do best, which is precisely to challenge borders, and to get us to rethink space and how we act in and with it in a city that otherwise is often defined by barriers and fences.
In some senses, then, London is on the one hand defined by statues, most often of men, whose lives are associated with a history of nation-building and/or national defence, i.e. war, and which stand on plinths that assert power and which do not let us touch or even approach the figure. And on the other hand, London has very approachable sculptures with which we can even interact.
Indeed, they ask us to touch them, as signalled in Lorenzo Quinn’s Hands, found on Millbank opposite the MI6 building and near Tate Britain.
If the statues are typically of men, it is also true that they are predominantly of white men. There are exceptions: in Parliament Square in Westminster there are statues of both Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela – but here, too, it is perhaps significant that these two men, known for their democratic values and their bid to create a society of equals, are much closer to the ground than the men who surround them, including Robert Peel (the founder of the police), Benjamin Disraeli and former South African leader Jan Smuts.
These latter figures enjoy much grander plinths than Mandela and Gandhi – with the contrast between Mandela and Smuts (who endorsed racial segregation in South Africa, even if apartheid only came into being after his term) being perhaps especially telling.
(My aim here is not to belittle Smuts unnecessarily; his achievements are numerous, and he might be considered a great liberal, even if he also had disagreements with Gandhi.)
If there is a seeming correspondence between plinth size and race, then there seemed to be a tendency on this day of filming to find it hard to film sculptures of women. We did find and shoot the sculptures of Emmeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens and Edith Cavell at 10 St Martin’s Place, a fiery Boudica, as well as the bust of SOE officer Violette Szabo on Lambeth Palace Road.
But we also found that we could not film statues of Elizabeth I (because Little Dean’s Yard is in Westminster School and thus private), Mary Seacole (because one cannot film on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital without a permit), and Anna Pavlova (because the Victoria Palace Theatre upon which she lives was under scaffold).
Beyond that, the Women in World War II Memorial on Whitehall, together with the Suffragette Memorial in Christchurch Gardens do not actually feature any women, but instead seem to reference them through their absence.
There were plenty of sculptures, however, of animals, including men riding horses, lions at the feet of men, sphinxes at the base of Cleopatra’s Needle, a lioness hunting a lesser kudu, and a heron in a pond in Victoria Embankment Gardens.
(Queen Victoria herself looms large in London, but while there are various statues of her, significantly more things are named after her: Victoria Tower, Victoria Embankment, and so on.)
Finally, Oscar Wilde does not stand, nor even sit, but lies, almost as if in a coffin, by Charing Cross on Adelaide Street. It seems ironic that in contrast to the phallic Nelson whose column stands around the corner in Trafalgar Square, here we have a queer icon not pushing himself upwards, but lying in the gutter, looking at the stars.
Somewhere between monument and abstraction, Maggi Hambling’s sculpture also seems to embody the tension between the city’s imposition of hierarchies of power and its democratic impulses; it is a working embodiment of the story that is told us by the sculptures of London.
With one day left for filming, and half a day required to do the film’s voice over with brilliant actress Lissa Schwerm, sculptures of London is shaping up nicely. We shall wrap up with our final diary entry in the next few days…