Exactly one year ago, an air of revulsion filled City Hall when ‘The Throne’ – a 20-feet high stainless steel barstool, was proposed as a public art installation for Grattan Quay.
“Crazy,” said John Cummins. “Disgraceful” said David Cullinane. “It looks like we’re promoting drink,” said Tom Cunningham.
The image of the Denis O’Connor-designed work was clearly considered so contentious that Waterford City Council chose not to furnish the local media with an image of the proposal.
The Executive also chose to pre-emptively disengage from an unwinnable battle with public opinion, sending Mr O’Connor back to the drawing board.
Well, 12 months later, the Council had no such quibbles when releasing two graphics representing O’Connor’s second stab at the €60,000 piece.
The sculpture, read its accompanying press release “is designed to celebrate Waterford City’s rich maritime and industrial heritage”.
According to its creator, the piece “will challenge the viewer but to also make (a) symbolic link with the area’s past histories”.
O’Connor added: “The idea of the chain links emerging from the ground and forming a river line suggests a type of renaissance for the city in terms of celebrating its rich maritime history.”
Atop the river line stands a 17th Century Tall Ship, setting sail from the then thriving industrial Quayside of that era (as the designer would have us interpret, one presumes).
Does it represent an improvement on ‘The Throne’? To be honest, a 20-feet tall stainless steel beer can would have proven a more aesthetically pleasing installation than a King Kong sized barstool.
As Barack Obama famously said on the US presidential campaign trail: “You can put lipstick on a pig – but it’s still a pig.” And make no mistake – ‘The Throne’ was a pig!
That the revised sculpture is an improvement on the original concept cannot be argued with – how much of an improvement is destined to be a subject of public debate.
Art, as is its intention, is meant to arouse discussion, some of which occasionally courts controversy. It’s one of the few topics where open argument isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in fact, such debates can be a source of great fun and revelry.
But, as Pat Hayes correctly pointed out during ‘the great Throne debate’ a year ago: “We have a dearth of traditional art pieces in this city.”
It’s difficult to describe the latest Grattan Quay art proposal as traditional – you could argue that the material to be used in its creation honours the once prosperous foundry nearby – but that feels a tad tenuous.
The concept of the piece undoubtedly honours local heritage – Waterford’s historic maritime standing, the shipbuilding industry spearheaded by the Malcomsons at Adelphi Quay, etc. So in that respect, O’Connor’s work scores well.
But, having spent considerable time over this past week looking at both images supplied to us by Waterford City Council, a few questions remain.
One: does it constitute good art? Two: Is this something which will bring the ‘wow’ factor onto our Quayside? Three: Will the sculpture make for a stirring welcome into our city for motorists travelling on either approach from the Suir’s north bank?
It’s virtually impossible for an artist to create something which will be universally well-received.
And, unlike Diarmuid Gavin’s stunning Bishop’s Palace garden proposal, which features elements to cater for all tastes, Denis O’Connor has just the one site to work with and the one work to create.
What’s encouraging is Waterford City Council’s willingness to enhance the city’s aesthetic appeal, which makes whatever becomes of the North Wharf and the Ard Rí site so significant.
The new Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre features an expansive plaza area which ought to feature a suitable statue or work honouring our glass manufacturing tradition.
That none of our sporting heroes have been honoured with a monument is something of an anomaly when you consider the dedications to Christy Ring and Ollie Walsh (to name but two) in neighbouring counties.
The scope for a spectacular commemoration of our Viking heritage is believed to be firmly in train; the details of which have yet to be made public. With that in mind, there’s also room aplenty for the forging of a work to mark Waterford’s Norman connection.
Want we don’t need, however, are further public art works that remain so vague beyond first glance – the monolith-like, fountain-based feature in John Roberts Square, for example.
During the aforementioned ‘great Throne debate’, Senior City Engineer Frank Roche hit the nail on the head when stating: “Art is not about liking or hating – it’s about expression.”
And consider the following: the initially derided ‘Spike’ in Dublin is now an accepted feature of the Dublin city skyline.
The Eiffel Tower was largely detested by Parisians upon its initial installation for the 1889 World Fair – but to imagine Paris without it now is inconceivable.
However, there is a flip side: consider the highly divisive reaction in Limerick to the statue dedicated to the legendary Richard Harris in the city centre’s Bedford Row.
To me, it barely resembles Harris (one critic said it looked more like a “gnome king” than the great actor) yet his son Jared loves it – and surely his view holds more water than mine.
So like it, hate it, think of it what you will – Denis O’Connor’s work, “a new landmark for the city”, is set to take its place on Grattan Quay. Let the debate begin!