Just add Art

Canal art, canal sculpture, canal furniture, Trevor Wharf, Llangollen Canal, Ellesmere Junction, Buttington Wharf, Montgomery Canal, Welshpool, The Wern, Spiggots Bridge

I am struggling again, trying to like the plethora of bits of sculpture that increasingly litters the canal system. In principle I am all for the idea – public works of art that enhance the landscape and expand the viewer’s cultural experience – great! It’s just the end results that are often so disappointing. Why?

Let’s start with the second bit first, the actual impact that the artwork has on the viewer, the visual shock or pleasure, the unexpected statement or question, the challenge or enlightenment. That is what the progressive artist sets out to do, to make something that has never been made before, and because it is new there will only be a limited number of souls that will immediately embrace that sort of artistic statement in public. But just as we trust our lawmakers to interpret the law so we increasingly trust respected artists to introduce us to some new art. Some turns out to be wonderful, refreshing all our spirits whilst other bits still seem like rubbish, even years later. That’s OK surely? We’ve all got to learn, and sometimes fail, whether as artist or viewer. That’s progress rather than ossification, two steps forward, one step back.

But every artist knows that the position of the artwork is also critical, the situation in which it is exhibited, the environment it becomes part of, whether art gallery, sculpture park or canal towpath. That situation affects the artwork and the way it is appreciated, but much more important to my argument here is that the artwork also critically affects the environment it is inserted into. Here I return to my starting point again – public works of art that enhance the landscape. If the landscape doesn’t need enhancing, then please leave it alone. The addition of a bit of art does not per se improve things although it will undoubtedly alter them. And that is why we need much more careful management and choice of these sites overseen by a sympathetic expert in environmental, cultural and historic canal matters – all of them at once! What we seem to have at present is box-ticking – a bit of art is good for you - tick- some community involvement if the local schoolkids can have an input - tick - and make it look less like a historic transport system and more like any other municipal park – tick.

The canals are also suffering from an infestation of park benches of various sorts and although these seats are not primarily designed as pieces of sculpture in the abstract they perform like sculpture, man-made intrusions that create unforeseen visual problems. Regardless of what they are nominally for they are large lumps of stuff inserted into an existing milieu and, like it or not, they have a strong visual impact. That impact may be gentle and sympathetic or brutal and obtrusive but please don’t kid yourself they have no impact at all. Just because the majority of us are not consciously visually aware of the effect they are having on the environment these seats, like road signs and adverts everywhere else, affect us all constantly. But they are a good thing, surely?

The original spirit of what they are intended to do is undoubtedly benevolent – resting places, a viewpoint perhaps to heighten the appreciation of a particular place, a pause for peace and contemplation. (Kind to the elderly – tick.) Now generally it could, perhaps should be regarded as simply churlish to moan about such a generous gesture, but if, by thoughtless positioning, that bench spoils something special that is already there then it is misplaced benevolence and a waste of good nature which we can ill afford. The Montgomery Canal has sprouted a fresh crop of seats lately. They are innocuous enough in themselves, carefully made in good quality oak, though it seems a pity that the designer has felt it necessary to cut the planking into slightly wavy shapes, reminiscent of cheap wainy edge planking I suppose, or perhaps of wavy water. At least they are not painted pale blue. But these seats are more than gentle comfort stations. They are stolid statements of presence, of ownership, of the intervention of grant aid to improve the canal to make it more accessible (tick.) They have to be seen to be doing their job- they have to be seen, to be making their statement about intervention and improvement, to show that someone has spent money on providing a practical facility for the community. (tick.) Why else put one at the Wern where there are two benches already and a picnic table in the car park? Why else put another at Maesbury that already has a bench every quarter of a mile?

Last year the restored Shropshire Union narrow boat Saturn was involved in a little bit of historic film making for the BBC. For the location we needed to find a piece of relatively unspoilt canal, accessible by a horse drawn cart, one without visual anachronisms like signs, litter bins, concrete bollards (or park benches.) We found just the space by Spiggots Bridge at Maesbury Marsh, a classic canal bridge in pleasant weathered brick and a perfect timeless situation for the historic job in hand. This year we would be too late because a brash new seat has been installed right next to the bridge spoiling that classic simplicity, visually degrading yet again another piece of historic canal architecture. Why couldn’t they put it ten yards away where it would not impinge on the atmosphere that they presumably want people to enjoy? It is pretty permanent I’m afraid – it’s set in concrete foundations that look as if they will outlast the seat by a hundred years, and perhaps the bridge as well. And no, I haven’t got a photo of the bridge before the seat was installed – I don’t usually expect to photograph absolutely everything that might get spoilt by thoughtlessness. Perhaps I should, but it would be a pessimistic and depressing policy to have to follow.

Trevor Wharf, Llangollen Canal

Ellesmere Junction, Llangollen Canal

Buttington Wharf, Montgomery Canal

Welshpool, Montgomery Canal
©Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere,
September 30 2008

Spiggots Bridge, Montgomery Canal

The Wern, Montgomery Canal

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