Public art in Cardiff

More than 100 items of public art have been sprinkled around Cardiff during the last 20 years, most courtesy of the Cardiff Bay Arts Trust (CBAT) and successor body Cywaith Cymru, quangos led by Dutchman Wiard Sterk.  A lot of time and money has been spent, so of course some pearls have been cast before us swine, but there are far more pig’s ears on display: the random, the inexplicable and the half-baked; the cynical and patronising ploy to garner cuddly cultural kudos for utterly uncultured venal corporations; the fancy window-dressing to cloak money-grubbing motives; the Orwellian indoctrination turning truth inside out; the creepy crawling to the high and mighty; the self-satisfied trumpeting of local government lackies; or else just the meaningless gesture trying far too hard.

Overkill has rendered blasé what might have been affecting, and overcompensation has turned civic pride into a corny posture. As a result Cardiffians have developed a blind spot to the strange effigies all about them – a pity, because there is much to see.  Now that the frenzied arty aggregating has largely ceased, I’ve been taking stock. Here, in alphabetical order, is a selection of some of the more noteworthy installations.

  • 3 Ellipses For 3 Locks (2007) Barrage.  An optical illusion by Swiss manipulator of perspective Felice Varini. What seem like haphazard splodges of yellow paint magically mutate into three perfect ellipses when looked at from a precise spot.  The location is given away by a yellow cross on the ground, thus ruining any fun there might be in searching for it.
  • All Hands (2001) Custom House Street.  Close to where the Glamorganshire Canal once ran, this 3m high sculpture in galvanised steel of two fists clutching a rope is a clunky but potent tribute to the toils of the canal boatmen by Brian Fell.
  • Alliance (2009) The Hayes.  A 25m tall stainless steel arrow and hoop by Jean-Bernard Métais that manages to be both intrusive and insipid at the same time.  Its crass symbols, presumably signifying thrust and unity or something, overwhelm The Hayes for no better reason than property developers demanded a feel-good ‘icon’.
  • Antarctic 100 (2003) Waterfront Park.  It’s another Scott Memorial! Let’s see now; there’s Roath Park lighthouse, a tablet in City Hall, the Scott Room in the Royal Hotel, the ‘binnacle’ in the Pierhead Building, two pubs, a whole neighbourhood and this white-tiled effort by Jonathon Williams (white = ice, see?). Cardiff’s connection to the arrogant English amateur? Er, his ship stopped here to fill up with fuel. How embarrassing.
  • A Private View (1995) Butetown Link.  Kevin Atherton’s witty sculpture, featuring telescopes looking out over the Bay through a steel sphere, viewable via a hole in the back of the head of a bronze cast of Atherton himself, deserves to be better known.  Motorists miss it hurtling past, while few pedestrians ever brave these token pavements.
  • Atlantic (1991) Tyndall Street.  One of the very first CBAT commissions and an early work of now-renowned Scottish sculptor Doug Cocker, this giant abstraction suffers from being lost in an ugly urban mess and marooned outside a vacant office block.
  • Atlantic Echo (2001) Ocean Way.  Michael Dan Archer’s four wavy oxidised steel frames inserted into a slab of slate strive valiantly to improve the soft landscaping along one of Cardiff’s least attractive roads.
  • The Bay Panels (1993) Harbour Drive.  A sequence of carvings in red stone depicting aspects of Welsh life by Martin Williams of Swansea. Perhaps we really are this tame.
  • Beastie Benches (1994) Britannia Quay.  Welshpool-based ceramicist Gwen Heeney has become a leading exponent of working in brick. These are nine satisfying terracotta seats shaped like mythical creatures, while her Rhiannon Seating of 1999 at Atlantic Wharf extended the concept into Welsh mythology.
  • Billy The Seal (1997) Victoria Park.  At ‘his’ (he was a she) old home, a sleek, life-size replica of Cardiff’s star inter-war semi-aquatic mammal by David Petersen, Welsh republican blacksmith from Sanclêr and son of boxer Jack Petersen (1911-1990).
  • The Black Bridge (2004) Kames Place/Adamsdown Place.  Bradley Woods and Andrew Hartford blocked a great Cardiff view up and down the mainline railway with undulating boards plastered in specious, box-ticking graffiti.
  • Blue Flash (1993) Tyndall Street.  Ah-ha…a jagged bolt…I get it – electricity! Thudding literalism at an electricity sub-station from John Gingell, with his bright red Power Box below. The yellow arc of Mesh Chip, added in 1995, hammers home the theme in case it eluded anyone.
  • Bowline Knot (2000) Havannah Street.  One of umpteen protest-too-much reminders of Cardiff’s maritime past; a big fat bronze by Andrew Rowe, who designs metalwork at Meidrim in Carmarthenshire.
  • Bute Street Works (2000) Bute Street.  Paving slabs scratched with piddling, perfunctory and fast-fading images of Tiger Bay by David Mackie, Heather Parnell and Andrew Rowe.
  • Cadair Idris (1999) Hamadryad Park.  William Pye’s sandstone mass stood outside Cardiff Central station for years but got such a thrashing from passers-by it had to be moved out of harm’s way to the Wetlands Reserve.  Reed Buntings have more respect.
  • Cargoes (2000) Mermaid Quay. Brian Fell’s 22 barely noticeable individual steel sculptures, attached to the exterior of buildings in the Bay’s eat’n’excrete zone, are based on the well-known poem by English poet laureate John Masefield (1878-1967) – a piece of schoolboy doggerel of no literary merit which can be read on a hoarding on the boardwalk. Masefield’s relevance to Cardiff is infinitesimal; he passed through here just the once, taking a ship to Chile in 1894. The fact that such a big deal is made of him in the capital of Wales, a country overflowing with exceptional poets in a 1,500-year-old bardic tradition, speaks volumes about the conservatism and Philistinism of Cardiff’s cultural curators.
  • Celtic Ring (1993) Roald Dahl Plass.  Marking the start of the Taff Trail to Brecon, Harvey Hood’s tactile bronze has engravings of tidal charts and nautical instruments within its enticing circle.
  • C-Interludes (2003) Lloyd George Avenue.  Fiddly and fatuous maritime-themed bits and bobs by Philip Bews and Diane Gorvin, strung along a slapdash, sinister and superfluous road to nowhere.
  • Compass Rose (1997) Scott Harbour.  A 9m wide mosaic of polished granite with inlaid bronze compass points on the floor of a courtyard, by Sebastien Boyesen. Guess what? It’s another Scott Memorial. Imagine if his expedition had succeeded!
  • Deep Navigation (2001) Roald Dahl Plass.  Stefan Gec’s pair of steel pillars pay homage to the coal that built Cardiff.  On one pillar, made from scrap from Wales’ last deep pit Tower Colliery in Hirwaun, is a list of all the south Wales mines as of 1964; on the other, made from salvage from the filled-in Bute West Dock, a list of the ports where Cardiff sent the coal. Gec’s accompanying book, charting the secret history of the Oval Basin, is a riveting read.
  • Drift Of Curlews (2000) Havannah Street.  Sally Matthews’ sculpture of three Curlews, one of many bird species expelled from Cardiff when the inter-tidal mudflats were eliminated by the Barrage, can be no substitute for the real thing. Inauspiciously, they look like they’re coated in oil-spill.
  • From Pit To Port (2005) Roath Basin.  A 7ft bronze of a collier with pick-axe next to a steel dram and a wrought-iron tableau designed by John Clinch (1934-2001) of Tregaron (completed by John Buck when Clinch died).  The statue looks more like a pumped-up male model than a raw-boned Welsh miner – must have been working out at the pit-head gym.
  • Funnel And Smoke (2004) Hemingway Road.  Andrew Hazell’s visual representation of, er, a smoking funnel sits apologetically in a vortex of roundabouts, tunnels, dual carriageways and vestigial space.
  • Gren (2008) Park Street.  The real purpose of Nia Wyn Jones’ incoherent memorial to Grenfell Jones (1934-2007), the Echo‘s long-serving cartoonist, seems to be to seal off the staff car park at Media Wales HQ.
  • Lampstandards (1994) Britannia Quay.  Even mundane street lights are required to double as maritime references in Cardiff Bay. Tess Jaray and Tom Lomax tried, pointlessly, to make them look like cranes and masts.
  • Landsea Square (2000) Bute Crescent.  An unprepossessing water-feature by Jo Johnson, adding more jarring jumble to the bleak, left-over zone outside the WMC.
  • Lighthouse (2009) Clarence Road.  A stainless steel thingy by Mark Renn and Mick Thacker plonked outside the new police station for reasons nobody but they understand and featuring a Peter Finch poem.  Finch’s words are everywhere in Cardiff: embedded in paving slabs, carved onto buildings and raised high above rubbish tips – yet the only person I know who can quote a single line he’s written is me!
  • Looking Both Ways (2001) Lloyd George Avenue.  David Kemp’s sinuous, wrap-around metalwork is deceptive: how was I to know it wasn’t a Parisian-style urinal?
  • Magic Roundabout (1992) Windsor Road/Tyndall Street/Ocean Way.  Pierre Vivant ransacked the Highway Code and covered large geometric shapes with road signs at a busy traffic intersection.  He sure created a landmark known across the city, but also set the template of heavy-handed obviousness that would mar too many CBAT commissions.  Are Cardiffians considered too unsophisticated to grasp a metaphor?
  • Merchant Seafarers War Memorial (1996) Pierhead.  A spectacular black steel upturned face formed into a ship’s hull by busy Brian Fell, seemingly sinking into the marble mosaic base designed by Louise Shenstone and Adrian Butler. Somehow poignant and powerful, alone against its watery backdrop.
  • Natural Selection (2006) Rover Way.  Adrian Moakes’ bold oblongs spiralling into the sky only perplex and irritate the stunted synapses of sheepish shoppers at Tesco Extra.
  • People Like Us (1993) Mermaid Quay.  Another John Clinch bronze of a couple and a dog relaxing on the boardwark, supposedly representative of local people. The fact that all the locals were turfed out by developments like Mermaid Quay renders this sculpture profoundly offensive: inanimate they’re the salt of the earth; in flesh and bone they impede economic development.
  • Pierhead Clock (2011) St Mary Street.  The 1897 clock of the Pierhead Building sits in a glass case at Cardiff’s alcohol epicentre, disconnected, deracinated and derisory.  However, the working mechanism is fascinating and artist Marianne Forrest has put little monkeys swinging from the pendulums to make some point about the 3rd Marquis of Bute’s opposition to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Ooh, Cardiff mocking a Bute…well, better late than never.
  • Post Secrets (2010) The Hayes.  A series of dull vignettes created by Jane Edden, only visible if spied through peepholes set in the side of bollards. Bollocks.
  • Quaystones (2001) Red Dragon Centre.  22 massive granite coping stones, excavated from the walls of the Bute West Dock, stand sentry in a design by Howard Bowcott and inadvertently emphasise the surrounding squalor.
  • Secrets Of Cardiff (2009) St David’s Centre. Lesley Kerman’s 13 resin blocks up on the 2nd floor of the shopping precinct that devoured Cardiff are appropriately trite, twee and trashy.
  • Secret Station (1992) Rover Way.  A pair of 12m high bronze cones joined at the top by steel girders, the work of sculptor Ellis O’Connell. Originally they were lit by fibre-optics and released steam – but now they merely rust silently.
  • Ship In A Bottle (2004) Windsor Esplanade.  More simulated sea-doggery alongside the freshwater lagoon – a cute galvanised-steel bottle doubling as a bench by Melissa Gibbs.
  • Silent Link (2000) Grangemoor Park.  Chunky rusting chains interlocking like a Celtic knot by Ian Randall.  While in this airy open space on the site of an old waste tip, it is worth examining another CBAT commission – Jeremy Waygood’s brilliant modern take on the ancient craft of dry stone-walling.
  • Tasker Watkins (2009) Westgate Street.  New figurative statues of specific individuals are rare in Cardiff, what with heroes being so thin on the ground, so Roger Andrews’ attempt to capture the self-effacing decency of WW2 VC and long-serving WRU president Tasker Watkins (1918-2007) made a change from the usual fuzzy abstractions.
  • Tidemark Seatwall (1992) Waterfront Park.  Intriguing fossil-like markings in sandstone dock coping-stones by Meic Watts.  Now more than 20 years old, they have been worn away to near invisibility – a clue as to how long most of these ‘permanent’ artworks will last.
  • Y Twr Dwr (2000) Roald Dahl Plass.  The work of Nicholas Hare Architects, this 22m high tower reflects and refracts light in a constant stream of running water.  A stunning addition to Cardiff which should stand the test of time (as long as we pay the water bill).
  • Water Towers (2005) Callaghan Square.  Welsh workers in structural glass Amber Hiscott and David Pearl collaborated to produce a pair of 10m high curved towers clad in rolled sheets of turquoise-blue anodized aluminium with water-jets spurting from a reflective pool, adding much-needed substance to a hostile traffic roundabout.  The aluminium is guaranteed for 25 years, by which time the young trees nearby will have matured enough to take over architectural duties – assuming they’ve not been felled by then.
  • Wife On The Ocean Wave (1993) Graving Docks.  A Graham Ibbeson humorous bronze depicting three life-size figures in a bath, summoning up a collective Welsh memory of tin baths in front of the fire.
  • Wind Hedge (2006) Senedd.  These 32 transparent, tinted, blast-proof glass pieces by American Danny Lane bring compelling shapes, angles and perspectives to the public sphere outside the Senedd.
  • Without Place (2011) Charles Street.  A horrible and unenlightening piece by Sculptureworks in the form of a giant chair, a film reel and a pestle & mortar, purporting to “trace Charles Street’s past cultural history.” Trees were removed to make way for it and Queen Street’s crowds rightly don’t give it a second glance.