London is a massive city. Not just in population, but in actual size. Sitting at over 1500 square kilometers, after two and a half years, there is no way Jeff and I have seen it all. But one thing I have tried to take advantage of and see in this multi-cultural, multi-talented, multi-faceted city is some of the outdoor art installations around town. For one thing, it’s free entertainment! But for another, it’s some of the most unique art I’ve ever seen.
I always thought it bold for artists to trust their precious works to the public by leaving them outside in the elements. How do they expect to not be vandalized or destroyed? How do they trust Mother Nature to not wash away hours and hours of detail and passion? At the end of the day, all of these works stood tall and unblemished, which shows me how much art is respected in this city.
Artists have taken full advantage of strategic real estate to draw in the eye and see something different in a metropolitan landscape. While there is no way I got to all of them, I did want to share a few that I had the pleasure of seeing while living in such an artistically beautiful city. They go from graffiti and straight-up strange to political statements and tributes for the dead, but each of them have a voice and a purpose.
When we first moved here, everyone told us we had to see the big blue Hahn/Cock of Trafalgar Square. Created and unveiled by Katharina Fritsch in 2013, this magnetic and bright rooster stood tall in front of the National Gallery for about 2 years. The sculpture had several meanings for the artist and for London, one of which was the placement. Then-mayor Boris Johnson said he found it ironic that a traditionally French symbol stood in a square dedicated to a British victory over the French.
Fritsch commented that the sculpture was a feminist symbol. Being a woman herself, she found the humor in portraying a male animal in the middle of a male dominated city. But also, the cock is a symbol for regeneration and awakening that the grey and drab Trafalgar Square needs, hence the shock of blue.
After it was taken down in February of 2015, it was quickly replaced by The Gift Horse. I was quite surprised, one day, to see the eye-catching blue replaced with a skeletal horse with a bow wrapped tightly around its neck showing the ticker tape of the stock exchange. It wasn’t nearly as “electric” as the rooster, but it certainly came with its own sense of irony.
Hans Haacke, another German artist with the honor of the Fourth Plinth placement, was inspired by The Anatomy of the Horse (1766) by English painter George Stubbs, which sits proudly inside the gallery behind this sculpture. Originally, the Fourth Plinth was supposed to hold a statue of William IV, but a lack of finance halted the commission. It is said this “riderless horse” is a nod to that failure.
Last fall, Trafalgar Square saw another piece of modern art installed. It was two porcelain-white index fingers pointing at each other. Mexican artist, Jose Rivelino, was commissioned for his piece, “You,” and said it was to represent “the highly significant issue of equality between human beings.” While not much else is said about it, the piece was only on display for a short time. But that didn’t stop the several pictures of tourists posing with the white fingers cropping up on social media.
In September of 2015, there was a beautiful installation mounted in the River Thames. It sounds strange, and I thought so, too. This is what I meant by Mother Nature taking over the pieces. The artist seemed awfully trusting of the river to preserve and not destroy his work.
I walked over to Vauxhall toward the Nine Elms on the South Bank of the Thames to see The Rising Tide by Jason Decaires Taylor. After learning a bit about Mr. Taylor, I realized my fears of the Thames taking over his work was silly. He’s a renowned underwater sculptor who is passionate about the preservation of coral reef environments.
The idea behind the work is to show how the Thames has shaped London’s history, commerce, and industry. For only two hours per day were the full horses visible with the water at its lowest tide. I’m not 100% sure what the heads are supposed to represent except the advancements of technology, but nonetheless, the installation was striking to see against the famous London skyline.
Covent Garden is one of my favorite places. Not only is the history extraordinary and significant to London’s aforementioned industry and commerce, but it’s also just beautiful and unique. The “mall” is mostly high end boutique shops and stores like the Apple Store, Dior, and Laudree, but tucked inside are the Jubilee Market and New Market; two massive areas full of artisan stalls and unique London items.
Over Christmas, they decorate the space with massive ornaments or mistletoe branches giving the rooms an unrivaled holiday flair. The Christmas tree mounted out front the Punch and Judy pub dazzles the eye, and the mirrored ceilings of the long corridor inside brightens the hallways even more with holiday cheer. It’s really something to see.
But Charles Petillon saw something else in the space. Last September, 100,000 white balloons were installed in the ceilings of Covent Garden, and the entire area was transformed into a mythical area begging for cloud-like day dreams.
The piece was a part of Covent Garden’s ongoing cultural program turning the district into an interactive art gallery. It was up for a month, but it was truly stunning to see the countless white bubbles suspended over the shoppers and even a string quartet playing The Barber of Seville.
Petillon says his balloons are metaphors. His mission was to change the way we see normal items day to day. The reason he called it “Heart Beat” was because he sees Covent Garden as the beating heart of the area. He could not be more right since there is evidence of a market of sorts being on the land since 600AD.
For several months in 2014, the Tower of London was transformed. With the WWI centenarian here, artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, “planted” 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat to represent the number of fallen British soldiers during the war. Aptly named Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, I decided to go down to the famous jail on the final day of the exhibit to see the installation in its full glory. It was truly humbling and beautiful to see so many red flowers in a pool and spilling out of the windows.
Graffiti art is also something that this city has in droves. I have not been to The Vaults, but from what I understand, it’s a famous location for incredible artwork done by anyone with fresh and bold voices. It’s not just graffiti but all kinds of mediums for expression. But what I have seen is the Southbank Center Skate Park with constantly-changing murals. This skatepark dates back to the 1970s, so I am dying to know what lies under all of those layers upon layers of paint.
So maybe it’s because these works are outside, in the elements, that the artists can let their creativity have full reign. The walls of museums and galleries can’t hold them back.
London is not short of artwork. There are so many voices, expressions, and diversity in art from sculptures to graffiti to balloons. I urge you to hunt more works out and share them with me.