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  • Writer's pictureRachael Fulton

Rise Water Nymphs, Racing Clocks & Empire: Glasgow's Public Artworks

Tucked away on Tontine Lane, the cinema-sign artwork of a homegrown Turner prize winner flickers to an audience of none.

Empire, the Hitchockian vision of Douglas Gordon, is one of the city's most secretive works of public art.

Its neon light flashes, said to hint at the decay of the great empire once built in Glasgow's Merchant city, the same area that the artwork now calls home.

Consider this hidden masterpiece along side the gargantuan, limelight-stealing sculptures of the city: the Rise water nymph with her ship propeller arms outstretched, George Wylie's clock racing for a Buchanan Street bus, or the sombre historical statues of George Square.

It's clear that Glasgow has a diverse view of which sculptures should bring its public spaces to life.

New sculptures crop up in urban areas all the time, often under the banner of regeneration, but the people behind the artworks and those who study them seem to have conflicting views of what matters most - for art to be pleasing to the eye, or to pose questions to the viewer?

"When people look a public art and don't understand it immediately, it's not the problem of the art I don't think. It's the problem of the person."

"When people look a public art and don't understand it immediately, it's not the problem of the art I don't think. It's the problem of the person." said David Harding, former Head of the Department of Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art.

"If you were betting on the horses you'd be studying the form, looking at the newspapers, how many races it's won and all that sort of thing.

"You would come at your betting with some knowledge. I don't see why people shouldn't come to art with some knowledge.

"I don't think public art necessarily has to have a very dramatic and simple message that's transferred immediately."

David, who tutored several Turner Prize winners and other successful artists during his time at Glasgow School of Art, has many favourite sculptures across the city landscape.

He believes the collection at the Italian Centre ignites a certain atmosphere within the building, and is fond of the Gorbals' Girl With A Rucksack and her fixed gaze on the future ahead of her. He is of the belief that public art should enhance the urban fabric of the city, but should encourage viewers to take time out of their every day lives to ask questions of the work.

"Some public art is not beautiful. I don't think it needs to be beautiful," said David.

"I think what it's doing is creating intense, interesting moments in the city. Moments of where you can stop and pause.

"Some are beautiful, but some aren't. Art has moved away from the notion of beauty as such. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing or a bad thing - it just is."

It is perhaps true that many of us miss a trick by ignoring the questions our public art poses to us, by not pausing to reflect on what the artist is trying to say or appreciate the more unusual, abstract sculpture embedded in our landscape.

For many, art that is aesthetically pleasing and quick to decipher has far greater appeal. For those caught up in the maelstrom of nine to five city living, heads bowed against the Glasgow wind and rain, the prospect of public art that's pretty and instantly comprehensible is pleasing.

There's no need to wonder why the letter of Empire flickers, or the meaning of the enormous punctuation mark dangling from the Finnieston Crane. If art exists to be beautiful, not to be questioned, it's easier and quicker to digest in a hurry.

One of Glasgow's greatest known public artists, the late George Wyllie, was a great fan of questioning. His 80 foot Paper Boat that sailed to New York, his running clock and the Straw Locomotive that hung from the FInnieston crane are all pivotal features in the tapestry of Glasgow's artistic history, and are artworks that posed questions to their audience.

George was so fond of the question mark that, in what would have been the revered artist's 90th year, his friends and family have come together to create a retrospective exhibition of his work entitled "Pursuit of the Question Mark". They also commissioned glass artist Alec Galloway to create a tribute to George in a piece of public art - a colossal yellow question mark - that hung from the Finnieston crane.

"The question mark was central to a lot of pieces of work that he did. It was down to the philosophy that people should ask questions, that they shouldn't just accept things at face value, in all walks of life, not just in art," said Alec.

"I think it's vital for public art to exist in the city, but it's not just about public art that's decorative.

"The whole idea of public art is that people get involved in the project. They might have a core artist that's designing or coming up with an idea, but it's the public input that's really important.

"We want to celebrate our artists and have their work around us it makes for a much nicer environment."

For Andy Scott - the artist responsible for the Rise water angel, the M8's steel horse, the Kelpies and Cumbernauld's Arria - the beauty of public art work should come first, the meaning appreciated later. All of Andy's work contains its own narrative, but can be appreciated at first glance without deep contemplation of its significance.

"With Rise, the story is the shipping and the docks," says Andy Scott of his sculpture at Glasgow Harbour.

"The shape of those big wings, blades, the shapes she's got are based on ship's propellers. If you look at the way the steel spirals upwards, the whole notion was based on aspiration and moving on from the past and the ship's propellers spiralling round.
"But the nice thing about working that way is that I might have certain motivations in my head about the Clydeside, the docks and the shipyards, but people - especially kids, will make up their own stories about it.

"The thing I like is that with figurative things you can get it straight away - you can look and say 'nice horse' for example, but if you wanted to you could analyse it deeper and say 'why is it a horse? Why is it there? Why is it clad with those ribbons? The story then has different depths for different individuals.

"Whereas, sometimes, with a lot of pieces of public art people say 'nice blob' and drive on, which is a shame because the work no doubt deserves more analysis than that, but people lead such busy lives these days.

"I think there's a role for art to brighten and enhance the environment, and if it adds storytelling or narrative to the space then I've done my job."

What do you think of the city's sculptures? Do you have a favourite or one that you don't like? let us know.

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