Friday 18 January 2019

The problem with the Spire is the problem with most abstract art and sculpture: there is no accessible story

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The Spire at Dublin's centre recently celebrated its 10th birthday – it was erected in 2003, under the aegis of Bertie Ahern, and Dubliners made a lot of jokes at the time about its suitability: yeah, a replica of a heroin needle pointing to the sky – all too fitting.

It was also a metaphor for Celtic Tiger Ireland – confident, flashy, overweening.

The 120-metre steel monument does have a certain aesthetic appeal: it can look compelling as dusk falls and the lights glint in its reflections. There is a grace to its design.

But I don't think it has ever really been embraced by Dubliners as an object of affection, as was the bathing figure known as "the Floozie in the Jacuzzi".

The Spire's predecessor, Nelson Pillar – always called Nelson's Pillar – which was blown up by the IRA in 1966, was a familiar feature of my childhood (you could ascend its interior for sixpence and see the panorama of the city to the Wicklow hills) – though I don't suppose there was any great feeling for Admiral Nelson at the top.

Ribald jokes were made about O'Connell, Nelson and Parnell adorning O'Connell Street, being "the three adulterers".

This would probably be considered "inappropriate" by today's prissier standards.

The problem with the Spire is the problem with most abstract art and sculpture – there is no accessible story.

Abstract art and sculpture may have their own beauty of shape and sensation, but they lack a narrative element, and the need for story and narrative will always be stronger than the sometimes more high-brow values of pure design.

Horatio Nelson may have been a bit of an imperialist, and nothing much to do with Ireland, but there is an engaging story attached to his life.

Biographies of Nelson are so successful that he was the subject of a dying publisher's words. "Always publish biographies of Nelson," said Jonathan Cape with his last breath, adding, perhaps a little unfairly, "Never publish books about South America."

Publishers have followed Cape's advice. There is a new biography of Lord Nelson practically every year because it's a good yarn: sent away to sea at the age of 10; always seasick; a religious person, yet Nelson couldn't help falling in love with Emma Hamilton (who grew stout and died destitute in Calais).

And Nelson's famous last words were so exquisitely ambiguous: "Kiss me, Hardy!" or, possibly, "Kismet, Hardy!"

It is story and narrative that makes a stone monument something warm and human, and involves the onlooker in a way that even the most impressive piece of steel never can.

It's a pity that in the early years of the State, a plan to put St Patrick on the Pillar wasn't carried out: Patrick was a perfectly ecumenical and historical figure, and his symbol, the shamrock, which we shall soon be sporting on our lapels, is one of the world's most recognised brands.

St Patrick in O'Connell Street would have figured nicely for The Gathering – a historic Irish brand, with great legends attached.

The means whereby we tell stories to one another may change – there's a publishing revolution going on right now as paper stories switch to ebooks – but the appetite for stories never diminishes.

Stories are everything from 'Love/Hate' to the Bible. Some well-meaning atheists have come up with alternatives to the Bible as a means to transmit old wisdoms and ways to teach morality.

AC Grayling produced a huge tome called 'The Good Book' and Alain de Botton, the Swiss-British secularist philosopher, has recently brought out his "religion for atheists" manifesto.

Nothing wrong with any of these endeavours, but the success of the Old and New Testaments is partly down to the fact that they impart their information mainly through storytelling.

'Aesop's Fables', too: cynical and cunning in their content, often warning against trust between strangers, but memorable stories nonetheless.

The modern art movement, which began about a hundred years ago now, has had a terrific impact, but even Surrealism, which was about chaotic inconsistency, is at its strongest when it harbours mysterious stories, such as Magritte's faceless people or women with their heads wrapped in towels.

And thereby hangs a tale too, because Magritte's mother was drowned with a towel covering her face.

Some of the most controversial contemporary art also tells a story. Tracey Emin's work can be lewd, self-obsessive and repeatedly focused on her own private body parts.

But it is also intensely auto- biographical: she tells her life- story over and over again. Her famous 'Unmade Bed' is a stunning narrative.

There is some fine contemporary public sculpture, especially commemorating sad events: the Famine, the condition of the Magdalenes.

But the public monuments which will endure best and compel affection most will not be the Spires, but the story-telling constructions.

It's interesting that as the Dublin Spire turned 10, President Obama unveiled a statue to Rosa Parks in Washington, which narrates, by itself, a great story about how segregation in America was brought to an end by one woman's defiant gesture.

Irish Independent

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