A quiet revolution in public art takes place this summer in the corners of east London. In the shadow of the Olympic park that straddles Stratford sits a fountain flowing not with water but with sand. In Tower Hamlets, humungous inflatable sculptures – including one of the 1990s pop singer Betty Boo and others depicting famous artworks – fill the delectable art deco interior of a derelict swimming baths site.
The works are among six public art projects curated and produced by Frieze Foundation, the powerhouse behind the contemporary art fair held annually in Regent’s Park and now in New York. The ambitious new initiative, Frieze Projects East, encompasses the six east London host boroughs for the London Olympics and Paralympics, from Greenwich to Barking and Dagenham.
Organisers of the London 2012 Festival, the summer-long public art scheme, stress that Frieze Projects East is a high point of the Cultural Olympiad, bringing culture, as well as sport, to parts of the metropolis described by urbanistsas as “on the up”. Create, a Deutsche Bank-funded, non-profit agency dedicated to bringing “art out of traditional spaces and into east London’s tucked-away places”, is also a driving force behind Frieze’s public sculpture venture.
But are the works any good, especially since so much public art in the UK fails to deliver? The installations are impressive and arresting, from the cheeky, outlandish intervention by British artist duo Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne that transforms the Poplar Baths – a majestic, mouldering leisure complex that first opened in 1852 – to Sarnath Banerjee’s witty, melancholic billboards dotted around Hackney. The New Delhi-based artist’s graphic illustrations show sporting failures in his “Gallery of Losers (Non-performers, almost-winners, under-achievers, almost-made-its)”. However, Turkish artist Can Altay’s outsized mirror ball-esque doorknobs (“Distributed”), found across famous buildings in Waltham Forest, could leave most members of the public cold.
“The trouble with public art is that so much of it has been vilified in the past 20 years, public art commissioners are afraid of being bold,” says Igor Toronyi-Lalic, author of the recent report on public sculpture entitled, What’s That Thing? “That said, I think Frieze Projects East’s scheme looks interesting and I’m definitely in favour of established, independent art institutions being in charge of commissioning and production, rather than local council bureaucrats.”
The most challenging and unsettling work is Berlin-based artist Klaus Weber’s “Sandfountain”, sited in a former warehouse in Newham. Weber says: “Public art needs to be dangerous; I appreciate art that’s mind-altering … my works are quite conceptual and often very complex but simple and appealing at the same time.”
Sarah McCrory, Frieze Foundation curator, is the influential figure behind the scheme, selecting the seven artists involved. She, too, believes public art “should be difficult”. She is also appalled by “the traditional idea of putting a sculpture in a park, disconnecting the piece from its environment”. McCrory insists “the work has to come first; everything else, including engaging with local audiences, should evolve as a result of the piece”, pointing out that giving public access to the Poplar Baths for the first time since 1987 should be a boon for the community.
Hadrian Garrard, director of Create, argues that despite being home to Europe’s largest cultural quarter, with more than 13,000 artists and more than 120 galleries and art organisations, communities in east London are among some of the least culturally engaged in the UK. Frieze Projects East is part of Create’s well-meaning campaign to “spread the benefits of this huge art community to the people who live locally”, says Garrard.
Ruth Mackenzie, director of the Cultural Olympiad, says: “East London is now one of Europe’s most exciting artistic centres and these commissions reflect the overall value of the games in terms of audience development and regeneration.” The principal funders, Arts Council England and the Olympic Lottery Distributor, which provided £430,000, obviously agree. “We understand the total budget for the project is £650,000,” says the Olympic Lottery Distributor.
But public art is very much hit and miss, with its impact on local communities an inflammatory topic among culture commentators. The thorny issue of legacy, for instance, hovers in the air with any Olympics-led project. For now, workshops linked to Frieze Projects East for local schools and families should fire the interest of residents from some of the most socially deprived areas in the country.
And what about the art? “If the government really wanted to celebrate British art in the Olympic year, it might have done better to forget connecting it to the games, and simply given it the support it needs to thrive,” wrote curator Tom Morton in Frieze magazine. The artists, meanwhile, will reclaim four of the six works. “Hopefully, they’ll be shown again in another context,” says McCrory. Two pieces will live on, though, including Ruth Ewan’s “Liberties of the Savoy”, a project featuring more than 200 young participants from the Olympic host boroughs filmed at the Savoy hotel in central London earlier this month.
Meanwhile, British artist Gary Webb, who made an interactive public sculpture based at Charlton Park in Greenwich, thinks locals are already curious about his piece (“Squeaky Clean”). “People walking the dog ask, ‘What is it?’ ” he says, with passers-by questioning whether this permanent playground construction made up of brilliant aluminium blobs is a sculptural installation, a children’s climbing frame – or both?
“If they can’t quite define the work, then there’s a sense that they’re looking at art,” says Webb.