Heritage & Culture

Live Culture: Out and about

Jumped Up Theatre’s Kate Hall explores public art

Fresh air is the best remedy for colds, boredom and noisy kids. And you can top-up on oxygen and sunlight whilst also checking out the arts and culture of Peterborough from public art or walking tours, and many are free to experience. Public art is a tricky thing – more often than not the sculpture or mural, or the creative landscaping of a public area, splits opinion across ‘I hate it, what a waste of money’ to ‘I didn’t notice that’ to ‘I love it, it’s an important landmark in my life’.

This is also what happens in a gallery, but by placing the work in public the volume gets turned up with scrutiny and judgement by one and all. But I would argue, aside from our natural instinct for storytelling (forgive me, I am a theatre-maker) that public art is one of the most important markers for how a community defines itself. From cave drawings and stone-circles to Guggenheim-style flights of fancy we are compelled to make our mark on the landscape, to commemorate and communicate, to impress and inspire. So, what does Peterborough’s art and culture in public spaces do?

The obvious place to start is the city’s sculpture collection, now managed by Vivacity. There were some fortuitous investments in the creation of the collection, established by the city’s Development Corporation over forty years ago. Most significant, and visible are the three Gormley statues around Cathedral Square. Top tip: ‘Look Up’. The three figures that make up the piece Places To Be are nationally significant. Sir Antony Gormley is still making work based on his own body form, the Angel of the North and Another Place on Crosby Beach being the most famous. But our ‘Gormleys’ were one of his very first commissions and first pieces in this form. They explore the placing and power of the human body in public space – a debate that touches on privatisation, migration and community, so still current and relevant. What with restoring the figures, getting landlord and planning permissions and the logistics of siting work at height it would have been an epic task to get these figures on the skyline around Cathedral Square. This proves that there are the skills in the city to make great things happen and change the perception of what is possible.

Another internationally significant piece in the Vivacity collection is Sir Anthony Caro’s Lagoon, which was restored and relocated outside The Key last year. It’s a more difficult piece; abstract and severe but suits its new surroundings against the glass frontage of The Key Theatre and facing the Fletton Quays development. If the promise of the development of The Mill and the University on the Embankment comes to fruition the placing of this piece there will become as fortuitous as the original investment to buy it. To see the rest of the collection take a walk through Ferry Meadows, especially along the rowing lake.

My favourite pieces here include the abstract piece Outside In by John Foster, and Sokari Douglas Camp’s ghostly Festival Boat, which is good to see up close (presuming the idiot vandals have left it alone for once) and then view it through the trees from across the lake. I would also encourage you to see the newly restored Bird In Flight by Bob Dawson, which is in the main part of Ferry Meadows, near the large playground – located in the perfect spot, overlooking the water. The condition of the rest of the collection is patchy. It’s hard to let pieces go but public art, especially wood pieces, have a limited lifespan. It does nothing for the collection’s reputation to keep pieces that are rotting or can no longer be displayed as the artist intended. This wouldn’t be acceptable in a professional museum or art gallery and it’s important that the same standards are maintained for public art.

Which does bring me onto a bit of more of a moan. Interpretation. Or more simply put, information about all the public art in the city. The various pieces, looked after by various organisations, are bought and paid for, and available for everyone to see. But the city is missing a trick in engaging the public who own it. How many people have plodded across the windy expanse of Cathedral Square and not clocked the Gormley statues? What is the story of those two hoops of steel outside the Lido? (Not in the Vivacity collection.)

In an age where we need people to get out and about, for the sake of their health and to build a shared and coherent community, public art is an asset. But it’s not enough to maintain the pieces – it needs communication and dialogue to be supported, labelling is a basic minimum, but interpretation boards and a local tourism app would really show some ambition. This is sadly lacking, a telling sign about the city’s cultural leadership – doing the minimum and missing a trick, negating the little investment made. In the absence of forward planning to maximise our assets I will restore normal service and optimistically hope that you will be curious enough to look into what else the city has to offer. As I said in January – get curious. The underpass to the station at the bottom of Cowgate was transformed in 2014 into a storyboard of the city with a contemporary mural of original street art and poetry by a partnership of local artists of Paper Rhino and Blok Collective.

It’s a bold interpretation of Peterborough’s history, with alien-like trolls being vanquished by Dali-like elephants – battling the nay-sayers who talk the city down but do nothing to make it better. Also popular is the mural by Francis Gomila on Link Road, which captures the cultural heritage and community of Millfield in 1962. And look out for other streetart hotspots, such as the underpass between the Amazon and IKEA warehouse, where streetartists from all the over the country have been given permission to create an ever-changing live-gallery. Once the Fletton Quays development is finished, or if you have to schlep down to the new council offices, take some time to admire the bas relief mural by renowned sculptor Arthur Ayes.

Restored and installed by local company BCR Group for Peterborough City Council it’s on the side of the car park – not the most auspicious place for this significant architectural sculpture. Mind you, as Keely Mills will remind you, the city’s most visible recognition of John Clare (worldfamous 19th century poet who lived in Helpston) is the name of a shopping-centre car-park…Yet again we have a way to go to value the city’s cultural assets. Peterborough Civic Society, a volunteer-led organisation who do care deeply, has catalogued some of the city’s most significant architecture and has been very proactive in putting blue plaques celebrating significant historic events and people. An up-to-date listing is on their website, and a leaflet is available from the visitors’ centre if you want to create your own city-wide heritage treasure hunt.

Or if you are looking for something more structured why not try one of Vivacity’s walking tours. Your choices range from ghosts, architecture, crime and punishment to pubs. The walks run throughout the year. They are pitched for mixed audiences and are animated by a guide from the Vivacity team with information which is presented as entertainment rather than as a lecture. Finally, I would recommend you check out the digital art project 900 Voices Of The Nene, which was created by One To One Development Trust for the Nenescape Project. This digital experience is of astonishing quality and combines an online archive of stories, artefacts and memories of the river Nene. Visitors can take a dream-like river journey, punctuated with interviews, poems and pictures, gathered from local people and regional heritage collections. The online archive and digital art experience captures the Nene’s people and places, inspiring real-life exploration.

So if your family are resisting putting down their devices, tempt them to try out this beautiful digital interpretation of the River Nene. And then turn the wifi off and get them outside to appreciate the art and culture which is just under their nose, or in the case of the Gormley’s, above their heads.

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