Exploring Diversity in Public Sculpture

Klairi Angelou (Independent art historian, Sculpture Journal)

 In recent years, scholarship and society have become increasingly sensitised to the issue of diversity and inclusivity. We believe that questions around the depiction and representation of diversity in public sculpture have become increasingly hard to ignore and should, therefore, be addressed and thoroughly discussed. There may have been an increase in public sculpture commemorating women’s achievements (for example, the statue of Millicent Fawcett in London) and memorials acknowledged by queer culture (for example, Kiss Wall in Brighton), and Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square (2005) may have put disability, femininity and motherhood on the map, but there is still a long way to go. This session aims to promote the value of diversity in sculpture and challenge hegemonic narratives and approaches to it. It will address issues of marginalisation and explore in what ways diversity is understood and reflected in public sculptures.

The papers of this session come from all periods and geographic locations and advocate for interdisciplinary approaches, as well as fresh interpretation of existing knowledge and presentation of new material emerging from research, conservation and archival discoveries. Issues which will be discussed include, but will not be limited to:

  • Queer approaches to public sculpture, as well as perceived politicised uses of queer memorials;
  • Sculpture representing ethnic diversity;
  • How the employment of different materials/techniques is involved in representing diversity;
  • The role of museums and institutions towards diversifying sculpture;
  • Case studies through which gender/sexual/social/national identity is explored and challenged through sculpture.

Open and inclusive in scope, our session will host a range of speakers concerned with broadening the understanding of public sculpture and become the topos of an exciting and challenging discussion, drawing upon a range of diverse sculptural practices.

Speakers & Abstracts

Art Placed: Assessing the significance of site-specificity towards diversity in post-war public sculpture in London

Lim Shujuan (Curator, National Gallery Singapore. MSc (Conservation of Historic Buildings), University of Bath)

This paper examines the significance and contribution of site-specificity towards diversity in post-war listed public sculpture in London. Post-war public sculpture was commissioned, conceived and sited with a specific intention and function for the public. Located in places such as schools, parks and commercial buildings, these are visual representations of narratives, visions, aspirations and ideals of the locale and time.  Post-war public sculpture is a result of specific processes involving varied parties from commissioners, architects, artists and the audience. To account for the exchange of ideas and values amongst various parties, and the consequent diversity of completed artworks, an inclusion of the notion of site-specificity is required. This paper presents the data of listed post-war public sculpture in London and categorised the artworks into typologies that reflect their respective intents. This paper also evaluates key artworks’ contribution towards diversity through assessing respective qualities of site-specificities. The paper’s focus on listed public sculpture in London will reflect values and voices that are currently absent in the hegemonic narrative of public art and provide a needed discussion on the action required for the future.

Cultural Value, Celebrity and Public Sculpture in the UK

David Wright (University of Warwick)

Since the unveiling of the statue to the late Eric Morecambe in 1999, the UK has experienced a boom in statues and memorials dedicated to deceased entertainers, comedians and musicians from the mid-to-late 20th century onwards. Further examples include the comedians Tommy Cooper (unveiled in Caerphilly in 2008) and Victoria Wood (unveiled in Bury in 2019) or the musicians David Bowie (Aylesbury, 2018), Amy Winehouse (Campden, 2014) or Bon Scott (Kirriemuir, 2016). This paper draws on research into the processes and practices that produce such statues to reflect on this phenomenon in the context of debates about popular culture and cultural value in British public sculpture and reflects on the place of such statue projects in the strategic priorities of local cultural policymakers. The paper sketches the characteristics of these statues and their subjects, explores their geography, identifies local and national controversies about the subjects and forms of the sculptures themselves and the claims to local identity and belonging that accompany them. Drawing on debates about cultural heritage, commemoration, popular culture and the democratisation of history (Samuel 2012; Lowenthal 1998; Brandellero and Janssen 2014) and in the context of recent international controversies about the politics of apparently permanent memorials to other kinds of historical figure (for example, Johnson 2014; Newsinger 2016) the paper concludes with some reflections on the aesthetic and political implications for public sculpture of the expansion of the category of the memorialis-able to include figures from popular commercial culture.

Conveying Ethnic Identity and Diversity via Public Sculpture in the Global City

Menno Hubregtse (University of Victoria)

This paper examines public sculptures that address ethnic identity in Vancouver, San Francisco, Singapore and Dubai. Each of these global cities has installations at airports, real estate developments, shopping malls and art galleries that point to their region’s cultural groups. I illustrate how public artworks selected by arts commissions and museums tend to offer more nuanced readings of diversity than sculptures commissioned by private developers. Moreover, public arts organisations are usually willing to address politically contentious issues regarding immigration and colonisation, whereas private enterprises tend to celebrate a region’s cultural identity for commercial gain. For instance, Vancouver’s airport authority has installed a number of Northwest Coast Indigenous sculptures to evoke a ‘sense of place’ and to stimulate passenger spending.

These artworks contrast with Ken Lum’s Four Boats Stranded: Red and Yellow, Black and White which is on the roof of Vancouver Art Gallery. While Lum’s piece refers to the region’s Indigenous peoples as well as settlers and immigrants of European, Chinese and Indian descent, it does not merely highlight diversity in Vancouver. Rather, it critically addresses how stereotypes are used to identify and deride these groups. I discuss how place-themed sculptures commissioned by private and public organisations in Vancouver, San Francisco, Singapore and Dubai address identity and why these pieces often highlight only some of the region’s cultural groups and elide others. I consider the subject matter of these sculptures in terms of where they are placed in the city as well as political, social and economic conditions pertaining to the region.

Why Have There Been No Great Greek Women Sculptors? Issues of National Identity and Gender in Modern Greek Public Sculpture

Klairi Angelou (Independent art historian, Sculpture Journal)

Paraphrasing Linda Nochlin’s famous question, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’, this paper aims to shed light to the marginalisation of Greek women sculptors not only in Greek art historiography, but more specifically in modern Greek public sculpture. How have women been portrayed in modern Greek public sculpture? What type of women’s achievements (if any) have been commemorated? How has the issue of Ellinikotita (Greekness) affected their presence and representation in public sculpture? What happens if we see them separately from the ancient Greek past to which they have been constantly compared?

In order to provide answers to the questions above, I will focus on the work of Ioanna Spiteri-Veropoulou (1920-2000) and Natalia Mela (1923-2019). Based on a wide variety of sources - ranging from unpublished documents and archival resources in Greece and abroad, as well as information derived from interviews - it will become clear the paramount role of the issues of national identity and gender in advancing new interpretations of modern Greek sculpture and most importantly open up a discussion on what steps need to be taken so that the existing limited representation of Greek women sculptors can be reversed and make them more visible in the public sphere.

Identity Politics and Cultural Hybridity in Zheng Bo’s Sing for Her

Timothy Tin Ping Yeung (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

This paper considers a socially engaged public installation by Zheng Bo titled Sing for Her. A colossal, rusted funnel-shaped structure that unapologetically cut into the cityscape, this spectacular artwork stood for half a year between 2015 and 2016 at the hectic intersection of Nathan Road and Art Square in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. It invited passers-by to sing along karaoke-style to the soundtracks of seven songs performed by seven ‘minority’ groups who are resident in Hong Kong. Zheng Bo’s aim was to give voice to those labelled minorities by asking participants, many of whom were not minorities, to sing for and with them.

This paper examines the political efficacy of Sing for Her. Did the element of entertainment, spectacularity, and, above all, interactivity of Sing for Her successfully ‘give voice to’ the so-called minority communities? Through Homi Bhabha’s framework of the ‘third space of enunciation’ – a space of discursive ambivalence that makes the emergence of agency possible, I will interrogate the identity politics of multiculturalist rhetoric in Hong Kong and consider the alternative space Zheng Bo activates. Putting the theories of Boris Groys, Grant Kester, Claire Bishop and Jacques Rancière in dialogue with each other and then connecting them to Bhabha’s idea of the ‘third space’, I will argue that Sing for Her bound participants in an aesthetic tension that dialectically negotiated between reality and imagination, static representations and fluid iterations, and, ultimately, identity and difference.



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