Add-on Art

Waterway art, sculpture, Trevor, Pontcysyllte, Llangollen canal

I nurse a nagging sense of disquiet in my soul about new waterway art -- this sort of add-on art that seems to be being blue-tacked on to the canals in an attempt to broaden their appeal and make them more like urban parks than a carefully engineered historic transport system. It just seems unnecessary and a misplaced use of artistic resources—a waste, in fact, and I speak as an all round artist dedicated to spreading a bit more art everywhere. Surely we can use our artistic talents more creatively than a kid with a spraycan messing up existing statements.

For the sake of my argument consider for a moment one of our best loved waterway images -- a white painted wooden lift bridge so typical of the Llangollen canal (of which, by the way, there are very few left in anything like their original conception. Most have been removed, mechanised or replicated in steel). If you can forget for a moment that it is a bridge, forget that it ever had a practical function, you’re left with a large painted wooden construction standing in the landscape. This can then be regarded and judged quite properly as a sculpture related to landscape. With our relaxed modern understanding of abstract art we no longer need it to portray or mimic something else to call it sculpture. As an abstract structure we can now see it as a statement about gravity and balance, a pattern of bold white stripes in the air, created with careful craftsmanship. Magic of magic, it is also a kinetic sculpture! It can move and change shape and stress, but remaining in visual balance with itself and its surroundings! Now, return the bridging function to the equation again and we have something quite remarkable, a graceful practical structure that enhances the landscape and lifts the spirit. What it doesn’t need is any tack-on art, different artistic statements in a different language. It would not be WRONG exactly, it’s just unnecessary and would get in the way of the proper appreciation of the simple engineering art of the original designer.

Clearly that simple lift bridge was not primarily designed as “sculpture” but the engineers and architects of the canal age were very conscious of the impact of their work on the environment, and the power of the hand-craftsmanship of an old fashioned time served tradesman. The only artistic expression allowed to those canal workers was their craftsmanship, their choice of the right materials put together with skill, traditional knowledge and attention to detail. Now this was already a formidable combination of talents but the results were then tried, tested and improved by a couple of centuries of practical use. That is the waterway inheritance that we should be caring for, attitudes to work and life that the future will need even more than us.

These reflections are brought about by a recent visit to Trevor at the end of the perennially spectacular Pontcysyllte aqueduct. Recent improvements to the basin include some landscaping, paving, provision of seats and some sculpture to enhance the area. The big stuff seems fine to me, particularly the curved and beautifully paved seating and viewing area directly opposite the end of the aqueduct, just right to watch the shenannigans as boaters shuffle or bounce round the corner to go up the feeder to Llangollen. Bold curves and quality stonework suit the area and the bridge, and it does a simple job – providing seating and viewing – with subtle dignity. But the powers that be have felt it necessary to scatter some bits of ‘real’ art about as well, low relief pictograms about local industries cut into local stone in a rather faux naïf style inset with real bits of ironwork relevant to those old industries -- hammer heads, bits of chain, pickaxes - that sort of thing. An interesting idea, although one wonders about the long term weathering of a stone-steel-cement collage in this situation, but I’m sure the artist has thought about that. What bothers me is that some of it gets in the way of what’s already there, and in the worst case actually blocks the view both visually and in spirit. A massive flat stone hand inset with masses of tools stands sentinel on the towpath, saying stop – stop walking, stop looking at the ethereal view along the aqueduct towpath, a very negative and depressing blob in an area that needed nothing-- literally. That view needed that emptiness.

The intention of the sculpture is praiseworthy, a visual celebration about local craftsmen and the skill of their hands, presented to provoke thoughts about craftsmanship and the stonemasons and iron founders of old that brought Telford’s vision to perfection nearly two hundred years ago but somehow it just gets in the way. Annoying, and probably expensive.

And then, just as I had got all my moans and criticisms in grumpy argumentative order I found another piece of work by the same artist on the other side of the aqueduct, at the end of the long embankment leading to it. Set back from the towpath is a sculptural group made up of an iron trolley, some natural stone and some low relief stone cutting that together make a delightful and affectionate statement that really enhances this pleasant low key situation. It seems to me to be a really positive addition, partly because it is not arguing with anything else. It just speaks for itself in its own place, a real delight. Oh, you didn’t expect me to be consistent did you?

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
July 2004

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