Oliver Barratt’s sculpture, Spring, is a bright and fulsome tribute to the influence of water. Its signature is the uninterrupted line, which swirls and undulates in heavy blue ribbons. It attends to a period of history when the healing properties of Leamington’s spa waters were much sought after, and brought great wealth to those who exploited them.
The commission of Barratt’s sculpture may have gone relatively unnoticed had its place of installation been a gallery, but sited on the main high street of Leamington Spa town it has drawn a great deal of attention. Placed in commemoration of the first well sunk in the town, this is a public work paid for by public money.
Reactions to Barratt’s work yield a rather predictable ensemble of disapproving opinion. The pages of local newspapers inform that public feedback is concerned predominantly with imposition. Local resident Mrs Hingley disputes the work as ‘visually intrusive, a strident feature’ that ‘serves no useful purpose’. Mr Miles appears in several different newspapers with his jibing ‘flytipping’ reference. Anecdotal polls from people caught passing-by shift the tone to bemusement. Mr Boraston remarks, ‘It looks all right but what’s it doing?’ then answering his own question, ‘Nothing.’ Mr Richards complements the sculpture for its ‘interesting shape’ but remains unsure about the colour, whereas Norman Parker is left wondering ‘what it’s meant to be?’
These unapprised judgements might be well-cast for the pages of the local press, yet they also reveal a deeper suspicion of public art. When the cost of such a work runs into the many thousands of pounds, public interest habitually turns to unease.
Yet this unease is often diametrically counter to the service public art is designated for. Local councils view the use of public art as a regenerative investment. As far as Leamington Spa is concerned, its heyday as a health resort for well-to-do Victorians is long since past. Most of Leamington’s wealth is now concentrated in the north of town, whereas the southern half, the original town centre and the hub of the first generation of Leamington entrepreneurs, is husk of regency architecture without the investment for its upkeep.
The use of Oliver Barratt’s sculpture as a figurative device for connecting the old town with its previous incarnation proposes a motif of optimism for the future. The artist himself is aware of the regenerative effect of a public sculpture, saying ‘the public art commission is the most demonstrative expression of the regeneration program.’
It hardly needs saying that the main thrust behind any urban regeneration is economic. It is for the stimulation of regional economic growth and the creation of jobs, the provision of strategic direction and investment in local communities. Government promoted Urban Regeneration Companies (URCs)workto produce a powerful and coherent single vision for the future of their entire area and then co-ordinate its implementation. In practical terms, this sort of approach to urban regeneration, where individual decisions are managed and organized for the purposes of a coherent whole, seems to make sense.
It is, however, troubling to note how one successful regeneration project can become a blueprint for a series of imitators, in spirit if not in execution. It is perhaps particularly troubling for the arts, inasmuch as art is not generally thought of as a service to a politically motivated enterprise which by definition wishes to homogenise the landscape.
And this, for me, is the main problem with Barratt’s sculpture. Its blue tones are already looking weary because they seem to reference an altogether different set of preoccupations. Looking at Barratt’s previous work, it is evident that Spring is a wholehearted continuation of his previous work. Not, in short, a specific response to the particulars of Leamington’s fortunes. Most of Barratt’s portfolio may be construed as suggesting flowing water. The use of one of his sculptures for this commission has brought Leamington into possession of a generic piece of modern-looking sculpture with vague undertones of fluidity, a prospect that the decision makers grabbed with opportunistic avarice.
There are twenty-one URCs in England, many of them possessing catchy titles like ‘Opportunity Peterborough’, ‘ReBlackpool’, ‘Regenco (Sandwell)’ and ‘Renaissance Southend’. The writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades is parodying of this irritating vernacular. He employs the term ‘brandwagon’ for the regeneration blueprint. For Meades, the use of art (or the ‘cultural logarithm’) is ‘the new accessibly accessible fun-style fun art. They beacon integrated modernising lighthouse revitalising for everyone. Culture will springboard you into the happiness sector!’
Why public art and regenerative architecture is important is because it gives the word ‘regeneration’ a figurative expression. A piece of art acts as a sign, not so much in the traditional iconographical sense, but as a reference to the regeneration of which it is also part. It becomes the logo of the whole restoration enterprise. In this sense, the signifying system maybe disentangled thus: the regenerative public sculpture interrupts the landscape as both an emblem and an instance of change.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong here. If the ambiguous aesthetics of a piece of public sculpture can help in the rejuvenation of a local area, does not public art like Spring have some grounds for claiming its own value? Yet if works of art are to contribute in the long term, they need to do more. Art at its best partakes in an ongoing debate between form and content, meaning, reference and context. The very worst is insipid, generic and emblematic.