Friday 23 March 2018

Unmasking the artists who inspire

Bound for her new home: the Anna Livia sculpture is transported to Croppies Memorial Park near Dublin's Heuston Station
Bound for her new home: the Anna Livia sculpture is transported to Croppies Memorial Park near Dublin's Heuston Station

Walk by the bottom of Grafton Street on any given day and you'll see people clambering all over the Molly Malone statue. Tourists drape their arms around her shoulders, give her a cheeky kiss on the cheek or suggestively cradle her ample bosoms, while locals use her as a meeting point. These, it seems, are just a couple of the many functions of public art in modern times.

Over the last 25 years, public art has spread from our official buildings and main streets into our housing estates and the edges of our motorways. Next Tuesday, RTÉ One will screen a documentary on the subject, speaking to the curators who commission the work, the largely anonymous artists who make them and the public who live cheek-by-jowl with them.

Few artists' work have inspired such strong feeling as Eamon O'Doherty's Anna Livia, or the Floozie in the Jacuzzi as she is affectionately known by Dubliners.

"People do interact differently with public art," O'Doherty says.

"They respond significantly differently, they are aware of pieces of public art, everybody knows the memorials in O'Connell Street -- O'Connell and Parnell -- but ask anyone who the artist was and only one in 100 will be able to tell you. I've done 40 landscape pieces of public art all over the world and nobody knows my name."

It's true the fame of public art has the strange effect of eclipsing the artist, as if the work just magically appeared on the street overnight. O'Doherty's Anna Livia statue was moved from her original setting in O'Connell Street to the banks of the Liffey near Heuston train station to make way for the Dublin Spire.

How does he feel about her now?

"I have mixed feelings, one always does about one's female partners," he laughs.

"I am fond of her but there are some misgivings. She has pursued me in terms of publicity and people have ignored everything else I've done."

When it comes to our contemporary public art around the country, O'Doherty says that it seems to be influenced now by the favouring of motorside pieces.

"Very often locations for public art are very poor, what's the worst place you could put it? By a motorway or on a roundabout. It must not distract the motorist so a lot of public art is now a silhouette cutout with no quality in the round."

Prof Declan McGonagle is Director of the National College of Art and Design and has been heavily involved in all kinds of commissions for public art. Does he think it's important?

"I do. It creates a situation where people can have an unmediated experience of an artist's work, they don't necessarily choose to see it.

"Many people still have huge reservations about going to museums and galleries. I think it reflects the understanding of artists that there needs to be a reconnection between artwork, artist and lived experience rather than the old idea that it was something separate from everyday reality. Artists want to connect, to communicate with the viewer."

O'Doherty also believes public art should be interactive.

"People should be able to touch it and walk around it. Instead of putting art beside the motorway, put it in the nearest town or village."

McGonagle agrees that interactivity seems to affect the success of a piece of public art.

"The public artworks that seem to be unsuccessful are those that simply represent a change of location [for the art], this is something that should really be in a gallery but happens to be on a street.

"Those that work best are those conceived, produced and situated in the context in which they have to work."

Whose Art Is It Anyway?, Tuesday May 31, 22.15, RTÉ One

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