Looking out for Art – Looking After Art

Sally Williams, Keeper of the Inventory

My choice of subject matter for this issue was prompted by learning about one of the permanent sculptures commissioned by UP Projects as part of its Secret Garden Project. Set up in 2002, this pioneering visual arts organisation has initiated a wide range of innovative artists' works in all sorts of public settings, including parks and gardens. Its mission is 'to support artists to make work that has social relevance, encourages learning and enriches the public sphere'. Henry Krokatsis's Turning Tree sounded worth seeking out, a kinetic sculpture commissioned in 2014 for Lewisham's Ladywell Fields — a park I hadn't visited for a few years. The sculpture, described as a 'subtle monument to nature', would be found in the Ravensbourne River that wends its way through this linear park — a fallen branch of a black poplar tree found in the park that the artist had cast in polished aluminium. It had then been set in the middle of the stream on a vertical element in such a way that the current or the breeze would cause it to gently rotate. I read that it: 'playfully invites visitors to paddle in the river and take a seat or spin on the Turning Tree'.

We set out to find this intriguing sculpture at the end of a beautiful summer's day. There was no reference to art on the park's well-designed information board at the start of our walk but we proceeded undaunted: all we had to do was to explore the river. As we approached the furthest end of the park, we asked a group of what looked like regular park users, but they had no knowledge of the sculpture and were definitely intrigued! Soon afterwards we saw something glinting through the trees and scrambled down the bank to investigate. It was a rather disappointing sight — fragments of plastic and other debris had gathered around the sculpture, which was well above the water's surface. We found the discreetly placed but informative plaque on a small bridge at a little distance. We had hoped to see local children enjoying this lovely evening, playing in the water and on the sculpture as it moved gently, but there was no-one around and the track that led to the river had evidently become overgrown over time.

Although we were unlucky on this occasion and subsequent enquiries reveal that the sculpture is looked after, it raises the recurring issue of after-care for permanently sited works of art. There are many people involved in such public commissions - the artist, consultant, sponsor or partner, host organisation, local community — but ongoing maintenance may fall off the agenda once the work is installed. The increasingly dire financial situation that faces our public parks and other services has meant that upkeep frequently suffers as labour and resources are reduced. However, I've learnt that both Lewisham Council and UP Projects are keeping an eye on Turning Tree, and a six-weekly maintenance regime is now in place. An active Friends group, Ladywell Fields User Group, among its many other activities undertakes a regular clean-up operation in the river, which includes stripping debris from the sculpture.

Public awareness of environmental issues is greatly heightened by enterprises like Thames2l, whose London Rivers Week, now in its third year, actually launched in Ladywell Fields on 24 June. An independent charity, Thames2l developed from a partnership programme and now engages Londoners in a wealth of water improvement projects.

Henry Krokatsis has shown other kinetic works in London's green spaces, including Kabin, a temporary sculpture in Regent's Park as part of the Frieze Outdoor Sculpture exhibition in 2016. A small wooden edifice whose form drew on the vernacular of park pavilions and bandstands, it could be rotated by hand and its interior accessed via a small flight of steps. Many thousands of people must have viewed this sculpture during Frieze, an extremely high profile art event where surveillance, information and constant supervision are provided, and damage where it occurs can be remedied quickly. After all, given the wealthy international art collectors who flock to the show, it is essential to the Frieze 'brand' that work is kept in as pristine a condition as possible. Another illustration of this particular mind-set is Canary Wharf Group, which prides itself on the quality of the environment experienced by all who work in and visit the estate, whose maintenance and security teams scrutinise every aspect, including the works of public art in the immaculate outdoor spaces, which are labelled, regularly conserved and rarely vandalised. But sadly this is not something that many of our public authorities are able to replicate.

Twenty-five years ago I worked on a permanent commission that soon became temporary, due to vandalism and the inability to prevent its recurrence, despite strenuous efforts to improve security and surveillance. Vong Phaophanit's Ash and Silk Wall was installed in 1993 in Greenwich's Thames Barrier Park (not to be confused with the homonymous park across the river). Planned by Greenwich Council to one day provide a sculpture park in a deprived area, this new landscape was a brave venture, laid out on a hitherto largely derelict site without a resident community who could be engaged to look out for it. Vandalism was not restricted to the sculpture — most of the illuminated bollards along the paths were smashed soon after installation. The irreparable damage to this sculpture has featured in the debate among visual arts practitioners about whether art should be placed in such places, although in my opinion it was not so much an attack on the art but rather the result of a perhaps naive underestimation of what should essentially be put in place to ensure that any existing or new public place — and the art within it — can be safeguarded in the long term for the enjoyment of the many.


Turning Tree
Turning Tree
© Peter Lindgreen

Kabin
Kabin
© Peter Lindgreen

Ash and Silk Wall
Ash and Silk Wall
© Colleen Chantier ART on FILE