In CultureBlog

It’s not easy being a sculpture. They start life with a bang but when the unveiling party’s over, they’re on their own. Day and night. Rain or shine.

And what’s more, the British have an ambivalent relationship with public art. It’s impossible to know whether the people will like the sculpture and take to their hearts. Public opinion can range from fiercely loyal to brutally harsh.

Sculptures can also come and go. We take them for granted but redevelopment or changes in taste can unceremoniously whisk them away. Cities aren’t like statues – they never stand still. One thing’s for sure, sculptures always mean something. They can be ambitious, utopian, herald new beginnings or stand for forgotten histories. The least we can do is have a look with a fresh pair of eyes.

The Big Horn, Tib Street

The Northern Quarter’s Big Horn sculpture was installed over ten days in 1999. Inexplicable at first site, it sprawls around a remnant corner of an old hat factory. It twists and turns like a serpent over the brick and culminates in a great big tuba-like horn.

Sculptor David Kemp re-purposed scrap metal to create a new gateway into the Northern Quarter – and it worked. The Big Horn feels totally consistent with the creative re-purposing of whole area. It’s iconic and people love it but the future is uncertain…

A proposed redevelopment of that plot of land (it’s a prime location, after all), means the Big Horn may have to come down. An alternative site is yet to be announced but we’re all hoping to goodness that it gets the prominence it deserves.

Skyhook, Trafford Park

Industry is man’s ability to overcome his or her own limitations. If we need more cloth, we’ll invent a machine to make it. If we need more raw cotton, we’ll build bigger ships and a canal to bring it here.

The most popular public sculptures are the ones that reflect or embody the essence of their surroundings. If industry is about ingenuity and power, so is Trafford Park. And so is Skyhook.

Skyhook is a very clever 18-metre high illusion by sculptor Brian Fell. It’s an almighty hook and chain, pulling an unimaginable load but it leads only to infinity. They’re well worth a look (there’s two of them) and they stand outside Trafford Park’s Victoria Warehouse.


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Ishinki Touchstone, Barbirolli Square

The Bridgewater Hall is Manchester’s iconic classical music venue. It opened in 1996 on the banks of a renovated Rochdale Canal basin and was one of the first big, multi-million pound realisations of what the future could hold for Manchester.

As well as the purpose-built Bridgewater Hall, there were new office buildings, waterside watering holes and a brand new public space: Barbirolli Square. They commissioned Japanese-born, Italian-based master sculptor Kan Yasuda to create a new focal point. He gave them the Ishinki Touchstone.

Imagine finding a perfectly smooth pebble on a beach. The kind that you can’t stop turning over in your hand because it’s so damn tactile! Ishinki Touchstone is an 18-tonne version made from the most beautiful Italian marble you will ever see. You can’t pick it up (obvs) but that doesn’t stop passers-by wanting to touch it. For a great big piece of cold stone, it’s calming, subtle and surprisingly irresistible.

The Face of Wigan, The Wiend, Wigan

If regeneration is the cake, public art is often the cherry on top. Like Manchester and all of its surrounding towns, Wigan has seen considerable regeneration over the last 20 years. When they wanted a new iconic sculpture for a regenerated public space, they started a summer-long consultation with Wigan shoppers and visitors. Rick Kirby’s design was the clear winner.

The Face of Wigan is a 5.5 metre-high sculpture of, well, a great big face. But it isn’t supposed to be an individual or Wigan’s best-known son or daughter. It’s meant to represent everyone. Literally, the face of Wigan. It’s made of hundreds of stainless steel strips, welded together to form a very imposing mask-like whole. Catch it on a sunny day to see it at its best.

The Vimto Monument, Granby Row

Many of the soft drinks we know today started as tonics and health drinks. There’s an American one (with the red and white label and secret formula) that went on to do very well. You may have seen it in every shop in every corner of the globe.

But just like beer, soft drinks used to be regional. Travelling around the UK meant different local drinks in every town. There was always dandelion and burdock, lemonade and maybe sarsaparilla but many companies offered their own unique drinks. Always with their own special ingredients and over-enthusiastic claims about health benefits.

Vimto (derived from the original name “Vim tonic”) is Manchester’s finest. Its formula of grapes, raspberries, blackcurrants, spices and purple northern magic was developed in 1908 at a house on Granby Row – literally a stone’s throw from where the monument stands today. The original solid oak monument first appeared in 1992 but was completely restored in 2011.

The Spirit of Sport, De Havilland Way, Bolton

Featuring more than 700 individually-etched stainless steel tiles, The Spirit of Sport is a 30 metre-tall tribute to Bolton’s sporting heroes. Each tile features a face of a Boltonian who has achieved something special in sport.

Over the years, Bolton has produced footballers, rugby players, cricketers, runners, jumpers, boxers, wrestlers, Olympians and Paralympians. The Spirit of Sport is like a hall of fame but it isn’t only for professional or famous competitors. All levels of sports clubs and the general public in Bolton were invited to nominate names.

The Spirit of Sport is also designed to be organic. The tiles can be swapped or changed to reflect new achievements and perhaps even forgotten heroes.

Doves of Peace, Quay Street

What best characterises the 1980s? Shoulder pads, mullets or perms? Duran Duran, Dallas or Back to the Future? Thatcher, Mandela or Gorbachev? Or was it that humankind could be annihilated at any moment in a global nuclear apocalypse?

It’s hard to overstate how real the nuclear threat felt in the 80s. Admittedly, Manchester City Council couldn’t stop the Cold War but it could stand for peace so it declared itself to be the world’s first ‘Nuclear Free City’. It was a rebellious signal to government that the storage or transport of anything nuclear was not wanted here. More than 4000 towns and cities around the world followed Manchester’s lead.

The Doves of Peace was designed by Michael Lyons and unveiled in 1986. The times have changed but it’s still there, just outside the People’s History Museum. Fifteen white doves, elegantly entwined and fluttering into the sky. All we are saying, is give the 80s a chance.

Bee in the City and Cow Parade

Sometimes, art itself is the event. The summer of 2018 was unforgettable not for just glorious sunshine, Manchester became home to 231 fibre-glass bees. Why bees? Well, Manchester has been synonymous with the industrious little bee for around 200 years - but these bees were different.

Each bee started life as the same blank canvas but they were turned into totally unique expressions of civic pride by artists, local authorities, businesses, community groups, schools and universities. Just for a little while, bee-spotting became a thing.

A similar idea took hold in 2007 with Cow Parade. Manchester joined the long list of cities from all over the world that welcomed life-sized fibre glass cows onto the streets and public spaces. All individually painted or themed and they, just like the bees, were all auctioned off for charity.

It’s said that there are still some cows hidden in Manchester. We heard there’s one in a back garden in the Northern Quarter. We can’t tell you where. Let’s hope a few bees decide to stick around too.

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