Memorials for the future

One of the most interesting aspects of Art Across The City is how the artwork changes over the ten week exhibition period and how the public respond to the artworks. On a very physical level, the artworks are exposed to the often extreme Swansea elements. Obviously we can prepare for that, but even with the sun shining, the sand blowing in off Swansea Bay has a very corrosive effect. We’ve been lucky enough, so far, not to have a repeat of last year’s quite brutal winds.

Whilst vandalism is a constant threat within any city centre, to date, only three commissions have suffered any great damage over the past 15 years. Even then, the public’s reaction to the damage showed the changing perception of public art, with a sense of growing ownership and protection towards objects in the public realm. Michael Stumpf‘s work in the Amphitheater caused extreme reactions when first installed, becoming popular with dogs, wannabee arsonists and the odd swing of a well heeled boot. Now, five weeks in, you’re more often than not likely to find people eating their lunch sat next to his absurdest, alien like sculptures. There’s sometimes things left behind in it’s pockets, but there is a sense of it belonging in the space, of activating the Amphitheater once again for public use.


Similarly, last year, when installing Ultimate Holding Company‘s giant monolithic heads in the bus station, the general consensus was one of aghast paranoia, with people wondering if it was some elaborate CCTV experiment,  five portraits of politicians, criminals or a vain attempt by the artists to immortalize themselves. With a 30-40k footfall per day, we were expecting some minor vandalism, but the opposite occurred. Due to some great accompanying words by Niall Griffiths along with extensive outreach and education programme, the people coming and going through the bus station started to ask questions, to chatter amongst themselves, to wonder who these people are (ex-Amazon employees) and to make up their own stories. By week ten, some ingenious soul had somehow managed to climb 15 feet high and attach earrings, nose studs and miniature daffodils. This was not vandalism per se, but an acceptance of what at first seemed quite unsettling. Quite how they did this, in full daylight, under CCTV, is still a mystery. By the end, the reaction to them coming down was still aghast paranoia, but at what they had done wrong, why were they leaving, would they be coming back. Absence makes the heart grow stronger may be be a cliche, but here, absence has a powerful imapct, perhaps more so than the day the artworks first arrived.

Colin Priest‘s Bay Watch has gone from being an archive of material celebrating Swansea Bay, with a (very) tasty Swansea Slip Bridge Summer Sundae commissioned from Joe’s Ice Cream providing publicity and an intro the wider themes surrounding the work. It is now an active and very powerful tool for change, for community involvement, again highlighting the power of absence and loss of a public monument. It preserves the past but reinvigorates the future.


Some artworks are designed to subtly change. David Cushway‘s Prototype is slowly crumbling before my eyes. It is designed for speed yet resembles a tomb. Emily Speed‘s Concrete Dreams in the Civic Centre atrium was 250 buoyant, rustling balloons on its first few weeks, making a massive visual impact in the space. The balloons, adorned with an image of the building it initially celebrated, breathed as the helium expanded under the sun glaring through the windows. Halfway through the exhibition, the work has gone from jubilant celebration to a limp, apologetic goodbye to a building now on sale to the highest bidder, with the staff and visitors to the library unsure of its future. The work has turned upside down as the balloons cascade down through the atrium, a lament for the past and an unsure future.

Outside the Civic Centre sits Graham Dolphin‘s replica of a monument from a ghost town named Swansea in Death Valley. What at first seemed typical of twinning public art schemes worldwide, it now looks like a warning sign for things to come. Like it’s real life Swansea cousin in Death Valley, it could be the last thing standing, a memorial for the future.

Graham Dolphin