Central London is becoming a paradise for modernists like me. First there was the extraordinary encasement of Big Ben in sci-fi scaffolding, transforming this dinky clock tower into a NASA launchpad, a witchy Cape Canaveral. Then came the austere grey shell that sat over the main body of the Palace of Westminster for several years, turning it temporarily into an awesome superstructure. And now with the entombing of Churchill, we have our very own constructivist Kaaba.
For the real art lover, what is going on in this country – and elsewhere – is thrilling. Seeing sullen old public monuments suddenly inspire people to action – for and against – is exactly what these works should have been about in the first place. Statues that once stood boringly and anonymously and aesthetically vacant on their plinths have now become great works of art having been roughed up, decapitated or drowned. Far from being dishonoured, these statues have been resurrected. No one will forget them now.
The tearing down of Colston. The way he was rolled across the city back to the harbour where his death-ships had been moored before he was brutally lobbed into the cold waters. How can you fail to see the beauty of this, the sublime poetry? History books will judge this as one of the finest works of public art this country has ever produced. And you know what, it cost nothing, the Arts Council didn’t dish out a single penny; it went ahead without state sanction, an act of proper rebelliousness in a conformist age; a work of real community art that probably did more for ‘social cohesion’ and all the other Blairite buzzwords than all the junk put up by Chris Smith in the nineties and noughties. And far better this than the prissy, bourgeois, let’s-ask-daddy-Khan manner of statue-toppling that we saw in West India Quay with the monument to Robert Milligan. The state has no place telling the public what to do with its statues.
I doubted Colston’s downfall could be bettered but with the encasement of Churchill we have competition. Even more so for being so accidental. The people who boxed up our former prime minister probably don’t even realise what a formally unimpeachable, quietly moving and very, very funny work of art they’ve created. Structurally it is highly unusual, ominously distinct. Much taller than a public toilet but nowhere near as large or wide as the real Kaaba, it is awkward and imposing and odd. Sealed tight in grey cladding, so quickly thrown together you can still see the seams, the box looks like it might be hiding something truly toxic, possibly a chemical hazard.
Standing inside, in the dark, probably finding it a little stuffy, is Churchill. Whether you agree with BLM or not, the power of this is palpable. The casing feels like a physical manifestation of this current culture war, perfectly and disturbingly representing both sides: both the misery that many in this country feel that something like this has to happen at all, and the visceral anger that the protestors harbour towards a nation that continues to treat racism with a flippancy it doesn’t deserve.
On Twitter I argued that vandalism of public art by the public was the ultimate act of ‘taking back control’ and should be a way for left and right to unite. People thought I was joking. But it was a serious point. In the past vandalism was often the last recourse left to the working classes, who, as I put it in my 2012 report on public art What’s That Thing?, were ‘fighting to preserve the cultural integrity of their territory against the encroachment of mindless gentrification’. Vandalism, protests, petitions against public art are acts that galvanise, and should be encouraged.
On these grounds too the newly-housed Churchill memorial gets full marks. By placing him in a lovely blank box they’ve increased the surface area available to vandalise. Unnerving, ambiguous, provocative, audacious: what was once merely a half-decent statue has been turned into an unquestionable masterpiece.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.