I did an interview yesterday with an Irish artist, Joan Walsh-Smith. She discovered only a few weeks ago that a public art piece she did for Derry in the 1970s had been demolished. She only realised it was gone when her daughter did a search on Google Maps for it when she was updating her website for her. Joan and her husband Charles, now in their mid 60s, co-created the "City People" art work in 1972. They now live in Perth, Australia and are highly-regarded artists there, even being awarded
I did an interview yesterday with an Irish artist, Joan Walsh-Smith. She discovered only a few weeks ago that a public art piece she did for Derry in the 1970s had been demolished. She only realised it was gone when her daughter did a search on Google Maps for it when she was updating her website for her. Joan and her husband Charles, now in their mid 60s, co-created the "City People" art work in 1972. They now live in Perth, Australia and are highly-regarded artists there, even being awardedthe highest accolade from the Australian Prime Minister's office for services to art.
"City People" won an Arts Council of Northern Ireland competition in 1972. A new urban park on Foyle Street was chosen as its location and it made up part of the perimeter wall. In the 1990s Foyle Street Urban Park was demolished to make way for a carpark. I can't get Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi out of my head.
Now I have only a hazy memory of the park and of the art work. If I'm honest, I didn't even notice the park was gone, and it was only a journalist Sean McLaughlin, writing for the Derry Journal, who broke the story.
I suppose you assume that public art is protected. You would imagine the piece had been carefully dismantled, put into storage or relocated. It's got me thinking about how public art is stewarded after it is put up? Are there contracts now, the rights of the artist respected?
Or does public art have a shelf life? Does it have to cede to new ventures 20/30 years after it's put up? It changes the whole idea of why public art is commissioned if it is to be arbitrarily de-commissioned. It also begs the question about the worth of one piece of public art over another and the fame of one artist over another. Since I started talking about this on Twitter (@marielouisemuir) and on my facebook page last night, I've had some interesting responses. The FE McWilliam Centre tells me that The Judo Players by FE McWilliam, which is part of Derry City Council's public art work portfolio, is going to get repaired. It has had a hand missing since vandalism years ago. The council want to get the hand remade to repair the piece. As the gallery said to me on facebook: "I think it does beg the question about the worth of art or rather different artists' work. Do you think if The Judo Players was by a relatively unknown artist the council would be looking to repair it?"
Another comment asks about the Emigration Statues by the late Derry-born artist Eamon O'Doherty, whose public art work includes the Anna Livia monument aka the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. It was once a major installation on Dublin's O'Connell Street until it was relocated to Heuston Station. His public art work "The Emigrants", from 1990, was originally located on Waterloo Place. When Waterloo Place was re-developed, the statues were re-located to down by the quay, locally known as 'behind Sainsburys'. But one comment on my facebook page asks about the piece when it was on Waterloo Place "there was a statue of a girl reaching into the fountain there; was she part of the Emigration Statues because she has not made it on the move down behind Sainsburys?"
Where is that statue? Or did she just miss the boat?
The irony is that Joan Walsh-Smith still has the original fibreglass moulds of her piece. She says that it would be relatively inexpensive to recast the work. She is willing to ship them across, especially with the UK City of Culture next year. Derry City Council's Town Clerk Sharon O'Connor speaking to me on BBC Radio Ulster's Arts Extra last night says it is unlikely to happen. She doesn't want to look back. CIty People won an Art in Context competition in 1972. It's context is over.
So why is there a push to reunite Anthony Gormley's 1987 Sculptures for Derry for next year? The double-sided Janus figure cruciforms were commissioned by Declan McGonagle of the Derry City Council-run Orchard Gallery and were put in in three particular locations on the Derry Walls: on the east overlooking the Foyle River, over the Bogside by the remains of the Walker Monument and on the Bastion overlooking the Fountain. Of the three originals, only one remains in Derry, now outside the Millennium Forum. There is an apocryphal story that it was actually found in a skip. The other two are in the United States. It wouldn't have anything to do with Gormley's status in the art world since Angel of the North that this push is on to bring them "home" so to speak? Or maybe it's because his grandfather is from Derry?
Should City People be re-moulded and rise again in 2013? Or did they just pave paradise and put up a parking lot in time for all the cultural tourists in 2013?