Public art installations: striking the right chord at Dulwich Park

by James Wood Mon 20 April 2015, 2:49 pm

Installing public art in parks is not without its problems. How do you create something that appeals aesthetically and shows artistic integrity, but also engages on a practical level?

This was the challenge for Conrad Shawcross, the renowned sculptor and country’s youngest academician, who was commissioned by Southwark Council to create an installation to replace Barbara Hepworth’s Two Forms Divided Circle sculpture – stolen from Dulwich Park by suspected scrap metal thieves in 2011.

When first considering the project, the sculptor had a clear vision.  Shawcross envisaged a warm summer’s day, where groups of friends or family, perhaps enjoying a picnic, would lounge on a series of spheroidal structures, which would blend into the natural environment.

“As my first piece of work in a park, I wanted to create something that was very approachable – very useable,” he says. “I wanted the sculptures to act as a sort of meeting place – one where you could meet a lover or just sit playing the guitar with a friend. I also hoped to create something that would be as admired as Barbara Hepworth’s creation.

“But the idea is to let people decide for themselves as to what sort of use they get out of the sculptures – it’s really up to individual interpretation.”

Differing perceptions are relevant on an artistic level too. The sculpture, called Three Perpetual Chords, was unveiled at the park on Saturday 18 April, and is part of his ongoing study of light and harmonics. Conceptually, each sculpture is supposed to represent the numbers within three musical chords – the octave, the fifth and the fourth.

Saturday’s event will take this musical theme as its basis, with the composer Mira Calix – a friend of Shawcross’s – having written a musical response piece to the work of art, which will be performed by the London Contemporary Arts Society.

When designing the work, Shawcross had another challenge to overcome. To avoid a repeat of the 2011 theft,  the sculpture would have to be made of a material which could not be easily lifted. Cast iron was the resulting choice – a material more traditionally used for sewer pipes and manhole covers. This could have been a risky business – perhaps such a weighty metal would be ugly and out of place, but it is testament to the skill of the sculptor that those who gathered to admire the arts installation agreed that it fits perfectly within its environs.

The parks of Southwark are numerous. Dulwich is an area of the borough known for its “village atmosphere" and the park plays a big part of this. The Dulwich Park Commission Steering Group oversees everything from maintenance to events and consists of members of the council, Dulwich Park Friends, Dulwich Society and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, located adjacent to the park. Installing a piece which would be sensitive to the park was important to the council and the Contemporary Arts Society – a national charity which deals with raising funds to buy work by artists with a large appeal – was drawn in to help with the selection process.

Choosing Shawcross for the commission involved a considerable amount of thought and after consultation with Southwark residents, the organisation is confident they made the right choice.

Fabienne Nicholas, head of consultancy at the society, says: “We had a very strong shortlist of artists and their ideas were put to a public consultation, in which over 400 people gave their views. What was universally loved about Conrad’s sculpture was the generosity of the three works with their magnitude and beauty, and his sympathy to Hepworth’s approach to form.”

Public art in parks has to be dealt with in a sensitive way that doesn't result in spoiling the natural environment. It would seem that most people agree that Shawcross was the right man for the job.

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