Saturday, 4 September 2021

Public Art Across The Bridge

I took a lunchtime walk across Hills Road Bridge. This was promted by having passed a bizarre sculpture a few days earlier. And then a social media post showing another nearby that I would have walked past but not noticed in my near-somnambulant state en route to work. The bridge along one side  is host to a number of pieces of public art. All in their own way strange and collectively making up a sort of mini-sculpture trail of the bizarre.

I started across the road from 'The Marque', at the base of the bridge, opposite Cherry Hinton Road. This is apparently the tallest residential building in Cambridge. Previously, the site was home to a car showroom which I think was single storey. At that time there were very few tall buildings in Cambridge at all. I seem to remember it being said that they were not allowed, in case they interfered with the scenic skyline produced by the University Colleges. It was impossible to get planning permission for anything remotely high rise. That all seemes to have gone out of the window, if it was ever true. Over the last decade or so, particularly at this end of town and around the Station, a collection of multi-storey buildings have emerged. Opposite the Marque, immediately behind where I was standing, is the battleship-like Belvedere, which is another building hosting penthouse flats. It is almost as tall as the Marque. 

The Marque was shortlisted for the Carbuncle Cup award for 'Ugliest Building of the Year' in 2014. When it went up, it was a bit of a shock to the system. But now its somewhere I barely notice. In part because it is a sort of gated community. Its not, at least as far as I can work out, accessible to the public (or visitors). Gates are firmly closed. I even recall seeing a notice on the bike racks outside the co-op underneath saying that these were for the use of residents, despite being sited in the street outside. The Marque does feature some 'public art' on  the first floor balcony. Entitled 'Bits of the world Blow Towards Him and Come Apart On the Wind' it sounds like the title of a God Speed You Black Emperor! LP. I recall hearing that part of the planning consent included provision for public access to view this piece of art. But having passed the building on several occasions, I have so far failed to find any obvious entry point to access and view the installation. It can however, be seen online on the website of 'Future City', an organisation involved in commissioning public art for developers (at least that's how I interpreted their management speak-laden explanation of what they do).

The Marque, Cambridge

I  passed the Belvedere, under the shadow of its helm-like grey metallic tower, before heading up the bridge. When I reached the top, the three office buildings on the other side came into view. The first and most recent of these is Academy House, currently one of several buildings in Cambridge occupied by AstraZeneca. Leading up to the entrance to Academy House a sort of astro-turfed 'garden' had been created with benches apparently for the employees to sit and contemplate. The sparse plantlife was dwarfed by the statue that immediately came into view after crossing the bridge's pinnacle.

The statue features a nude man with a tall pointy hat, balancing an elephant in the air. The view below features the neighbouring office, Unex House, in the background. The Academy House 'garden' is to the fore. The golden hat the man is wearing is clearly symbolic. It brought to mind wizards, clowns, dunces and people from the band Gong. But the internet reveals that the artist says the hat represents knowledge through the ages. The sculpture is also supposed to symbolise 'the human struggle to achieve excellence, pushing boundaries to  make the impossible possible'. The artist, Bushra Fakhoury, goes on to say 'We need to prioritise, work positively and relentlessly towards achieving our goals and dreams'. This on the face of it, sounds like corporate management speak designed to motivate workers into believing their efforts have some higher purpose other than to fill shareholders pockets. An attempt to keep them on the treadmill, nose to the grindstone. But the sculpture is called Dunamis which is the name of an Ancient Greek philosphical concept meaning 'power', 'potential' or 'ability'. This is central to the Aristotelian idea of potentiality and actuality, which is not one necessarily concerned with the relentless push for 'progress' or economic growth. Nor with the perplexing concept of hard work for its own sake where a never ending series of 'goals' is seen as something individuals should constantly aspire to. The sculpture also seems to have a message around humans supporting the survival of endangered species, somehow entwined with these  concepts. AstraZennca have of course developed one of the Covid vacines successfully, helping to reduce the impact of Covid and reduce the number of deaths. This was managed impressively quickly, showing that where there is the will, expertise and (importantly) funding available, the 'impossible' can be achieved. The fact it was achieved shows it was never impossible in the first place, despite the misguided protestations of the anti-vax keyboard warriors who think a safe vacine does not and cannot exist and could not be developed with any speed. How many elephants or other endangered species were either harmed, saved or unaffected in the course of the  development of the vacine remains unclear.

Dunamis, Cambridge

I entered the 'garden' to get a closer view. It wasn't clear whether this space was meant to be available to the public to sit in or if it was only to be used by staff and people visiting Academy House. But there was nothing preventing entry and no 'private' or 'keep out' signs that I could see. Nobody was taking advantage of the space to stop for a rest or have their lunch, or to admire the sculpture. There was no sign of life from Academy House, nobody went in or out during my brief pause in the space.

The view of the statue from this angle was framed by the Marque, the Belvedere and the slightly more low rise Travelodge. This trio of buildings have all appeared following the apparent relaxation of the restriction on tall buildings in Cambridge. Twenty years ago this view would have probably been laughed off as 'impossible'. Now the impossible has been realised, whether this represents 'progess', is really in the eye of the beholder. Ignoring meaning intended by the artist, the statue brought to my mind the image of a bizarre circus. In the foreground of the non-descript 21st Century scene behind it, the statue felt like a mischievous intervention. The bizarre and unusual imposed on an environment dominated by the bland and the corporate, and mocking it. The hat man has his bare arse firmly pointed insultingly towards The Marque.

Dunamis, Cambridge

I left the garden and carried on down the bridge. At the far end of Unex House, on a patch of grass, 'The Don' looks out across the bridge like a giant being from another world. Unconvincingly disguised as a University academic, its white emulsion face melts downwards into a sort of neck scarf affair and has deep eyeless sockets. This piece of public art is possibly one of the strangest and mysterious in Cambridge. Its also one that was derided by Cambridge's public art officer as 'one of the poorest quality works' ever submitted to them. The artist , Pablo Atchugarry, called this accusation 'an abuse' of his work. He has also been reported as denying being responsible for producing it in the first place.

When I first noticed The Don, probably a couple of years ago, it was sited further back in the Unex House car park. It moved to its more prominent position more recently, probably during lockdown, but I can't recall exactly when. One day it was suddenly there, an imposing figure not far from the pedestrian footpath. This proximity allowed the plaque at its based to be easily read. It says 'HRH Prince Philip. Duke of Edinburgh Chancellor University of Cambridge 1977-2011'. Its not clear if this plaque was part of the original design of the sculpture, or a later addition. Or whether the figure itself is supposed to be Prince Philip, or at least an alien-like abstraction of him during his period as Chancellor. It was only after his death last year that I learned of The Prince Philip Movement., a cargo cult on the Island of Tanna. They worship Prince Philip as a deity and have in the past sent delegations to the UK. Maybe they wil send a future delegation to worship at the base of The Don.

The Don, Cambridge

Across to the edge of the third office building, City House, I encountered the third sculpture. This is 'Danse-Gwenodour', by the same artist as Dunamis, Bushra Fakhoury. It is intended to depict 'celebration of life' and inspired by a dance performed by villagers in Bretagne, France (or Brittany), a place famous for magalithic monuments and 'mysterious art vestiges' according to one website. This may explain the strange paganistic feel of the sculpture. The beak-masked faces and wild dancing of the naked figures has something of The Wicker Man about it. Like the Dumanis sculpture and the Don, this seemed a bizarre intervention, at odds with the typically 1990s office building behind it. From this angle though, even City House manages to emenate a sort of monolithic church tower like quality that I had not associated with the building before.

Danse-Gwenpdour, Cambridge

City House has sculptures inside too. I tried to peer surreptitiously through the window. There was a statue of somebody sitting down and another which looked like a horses head just inside. The glass was too opaque to make them out properly. As I tried to get a better view I stood in front of the door which automatically opened. There appeared to be nobody inside but presumably there was a receiptionist somewhere beyond the murk, behind the statue of a bull. This seemed to be placed in the position of a guardian to put off potential intruders. I recalled coming to this building once to sign up with a recruitment agent when I was under threat of being made redundant. My recollection was of a bull statue in the basement, resembling the Minotaur in its labyrinth. The building at the time seemed to be mostly financial sector businesses. That and the name City House, along with the symbol of the bull, had connotations of The City of London Financial Centre. Maybe the building was an outpost, maybe it was trying to project an imagined connection to drum up business. I've never met anyone that works there and in the end I wasn't made redundant so had no need to communicate with the recruitment agency or visit the building again, so never found out. It turns out there are two bulls, so maybe the one I remember is still in the basement. But I didn't hang around to find out. After I took the quick snap above I departed, sensing that my presence would be questioned should any reception staff suddenly appear.

The Bull, City House, Cambridge

The final sculpture on the Hills road trail is 'Chauvinist'. This is sited on the other side of City House, at the junction with Hills Road and Brooklands Avenue. This pre-dates the other three outdoor sculptures on the Bridge. I was commissioned in 1990, around the time City House was being built. The artist is Helaine Blumenfield but I can't find any explanation online as to the intended meaning of the sculpture. But given the City House's actual or imagined connections with the City Of London Finance industry, I suspect the title says it all. The Financial sector today is still reported as being one rife with sexism and I imagine in the early 1990s, during the era of 'new laddism', was even worse.

Chauvinist, Cambridge

I left the vicinity of the bridge and its bizarre parade of office public art to go back to work. The sculptures felt like a series of disruptions of the otherwise non-descript corporate landscape created by the three office buildings. That they were permitted and sponsored by the same people as the offices themselves I suppose watered this feeling down to an extent but that didn't seem to matter much.That they managed to exist at all seemed to me a good thing in an area of town particularly susceptible to the development of ever homogenised and increasingly expensive offices, appartment buildings and hotels.