We were back in the West Country for Christmas, and we went to Bath for the day. I hadn’t seen the Roman Baths for 20 years or so, and was curious to see how this site had been developed, since I remembered it as pretty cramped and BANES being not exactly a by word for quality visitor experience. The tourist stream must be incessant (as, presumably, it has been since the baths were founded 2000 years ago; plus ca change etc), and that’s difficult to handle. One thing that has always been wonderful about the baths (apart from the raw energy of the hot spring, which is an astounding thing to see on a cold grey December day in England) are the lead curses that Romano-British patrons of the baths and their attendant temples would throw into the healing and sacred waters. The messages are so immediate and present. That got to me thinking about this card, which is from the excelent Corinuim Musem in Cirencester. The Cotswolds were the play ground of the rich and monied upper classes in Roman Britain (plus ca change etc), and Cirencester (Corinium) was the richest city outside of London.
So this litle acrostic is a fun graffito from that time; and immediate record of an individual long dead; something never meant for anyone’s eyes other than the person who wrote. I’m going to be making liberal use of Wikipedia here, but here goes:
R O T A S
O P E R A
T E N E T
A R E P O
S A T O R
My card calls it an acrostic, Wikipedia calls it a pallindrome, I call it something that reads the same whichever way you look at it: Rotas (thing with a wheel), Opera (working), Tenet (has commands, preserves), Arepo ( a creeping thing, a proper names of some kind), Sator (the master, sower, the first principle).
This includes opposite and alternating directions; since Latin has no set word order, it still reads the same: ‘farmer Arepo uses a plough’. The literature on the Sator Square appears to be vast (just go to the Wikipedia page, already), especially concerning the proper name Arepo, which, apparently appears no where else (which means it’s code?A made up name?); but if it’s so famous (the Sator Square appearing from Pompeii to Cirencester to Manchester to Sienna to Dura Europos to the island of Gotland) then why didn’t people start adopting it as an actual name?
It’s been used for magic (such word play confuses the Devil, apparently), but also, it says here. contains a secret Christian message. The centre cross can be read as the first two words of the Pater Noster (Our Father, who art in heaven etc), surrounded by A and O; Alpha and Omega. As such, it could be a Christian code, something that you’d write on a wall to tell other Christians that there were Christians about, or, more simply, something that one might idly scratch to affirm ones own identity, a tag. And, as it did spread across the entire Mediterranean world and beyond, over hundreds of years, it might be earliest example of what we all now call a meme…
Here is another of my own slides; this was taken in Birmingham late 1994 or early 1995. It’s the rear of the Birmingham International Convention Centre, leading to the small bridge that takes you over the canal to Brindley Place and the Ikon Gallery. The bronze sculpture is Battle of the Gods and the Giants by Roderick Tye. I didn’t know that when I took the image, because then (it maybe different now) the work appeared to be un-credited in the space. The sculpture was commissioned in 1990 by The Public Art Commissions Agency. Lead by the redoubtable Vivien Lovell (now heading up her own practice), PACA was one of several regional public art commissions agencies set up by Arts Council of GB to promote best practice in public commissioning by offering subsidised services to local government and private entities. By the end of the 1990’s most of these agencies had broken up into individual private practice; National Lottery funding had made the public art sector a more stable business and the vaguries of regular Arts Council support via Regional Arts Board made publicly-supported agencies much less viable.
Tye’s work was part of a grand scheme for public art around the Convention Centre (architects Percy Thomas Partnership, 1991) and Centenary Square, including a massive surface treatment by Tess Jaray and a central sculpture by Raymond Mason, Forward.
When I used to lecture about public art, I’m afraid that I sometimes used this image to illustrate Tom Wolfe’s memorable phrase ‘Turd In the Plaza’ (a phrase taken from The Worship of Art, Harpers, 1984; attributed by Wolfe to James Wines, founder of SITE. Personally, I think Wolfe just made it up). Further public space wags then coined Plop Art , delightfully continuing the lavatorial theme, to describe public art works that appeared to be simply placed, rather than sited or fully integrated, within the urban fabric that they were intended to enhance. Essentially it became a term like ‘political correctness’ that was simple used to describe something that you didn’t like, a self-conciously ‘edgy’ phrase, used by artists, architects, theorists and policy-makers as a public art strawman. I felt that Battle of the Gods and the Giants expressed the concept rather well, since it was both turd-shaped and at the exit/rear of the Convention centre, in addition to being completely devoid of any conceptual or physical connection to its surroundings. Literally a cloud, floating without anchor, in a courtyard of brick, surrounded by planters and Homebase garden furniture. However, after reading about Roderick Tye, a sculptor, educator and fly-fisherman, who died in 2009 at aged just 50, I’m sorry that his work was not done better justice by its commissioners and owners.
Tip’o’the Pin to George Noszlopy’s The Public Sculpture of Birmingham.
So, long time, no blog. And here’s a change for the new year. Until I can get myself in shape to a) find and b) scan a pile of new postcards, I will be posting images from my own collection, 35 mm slides taken when I was ***** at the ****** of England. Part of my job at that institution (since it was pretty much completely unsupervised) was to go around England assessing public art work that had been paid for by the National Lottery. Since, as it appeared to me, no one else was doing it, I also photographed these works of art, since I thought that it might a good idea if the ***** of England actually had a visual record on what the public’s money had been spent. So…many happy/days hours since exploring some of the hidden corners of England, and some really evocative and authentic works of public sculpture and some of the truly dire…
This is Richard Wentworth’s work as the lead artist for the Teesdale Trail, that follows the river Tees from the Cumbrian moors down to the North Sea: a £70,000 project headed by Teesdale District Council, and group-funded as part of the 1996 Year of Visual Arts in the North (itself part of the Arts Council’s Arts 2000 initiative, launched in 1990, project of Lord Palumbo, then Arts Council of Great Britain Chairman). There maybe more about Arts 2000 on this blog, since, coinciding with a change of government, the Arts Lottery (which paid for much of the commissioned work on the North), and the break-up of AC of GB ended up looking rather different to Peter Palumbo’s original intent. The commission of Wentworth for the trail was the first purely public art project to be supported by the National Lottery, and was managed by Cleveland Arts (Now Tees Valley Arts), who were instrumental, with a committed and expert leadership, in bringing a number of important artists to make work in the NE in the 1990’s.
I was then, and still am, a big fan of Richard Wentworth (I’m the proud owner of two of the genius black-and-white dinner plates that he produced for the famous fund-raising gala dinner for the Serpentine Gallery with Princess Diana back in 1995), who’s public work is more concerned with the everyday physical compromises and accommodations that must be made if we are to live together, rather than the grand statement. To apply him to a rural setting is a fascinating project, and a tribute to the expertise at Cleveland Arts. This resulted in an object-based series of works that obliquely referenced both Wentworth’s sculpture and the kind of historicised and forgotten objects, bollards, boot-scrapers, milestones and the like, that can be found on rural pathways. Wentworth probably isn’t as fashionable as he used to be, but his deconstructed use of found objects, visual puns and public space echo is much of what is made as sculpture today. These parish boundary markers are simply cast in iron, and are split longitudinally, with a dinner plate-shaped capital, and the parish name incised on the side (lettering by Karl Fisher). This image was taken on the boundary of the parish of Eggleston and Middleton. The markers lay on the path in the lee of Egglestone Abbey, a picturesque ruin for a spring day in the North Riding.
If I continue with these postings, I will credit the superb Public Sculpture of Britain Series, published by the PMSA and Liverpool University Press. This series of books is an invaluable gazetter of art in public space throughout the UK. I have my own resources, but these volumes are great for getting the facts right.