Prosthetic Aesthetics

"Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs, he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on him and they still give him much trouble at times." Sigmund Freud

On Anish Kapoor, Part Three: XL Sculpture

Public art.

What does it mean? If it means a work of art visible to the public, then Kapoor has been very successful with the mirrored Cloud Gate, and incredibly successful with the towering Orbit. Yet the sequence of events leading up to it has nothing to do with art or the public. The ArcelorMittal Orbit’s official website proudly proclaims that it was the produce of pure chance:

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, wanted a structure and artwork to commemorate the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games, and a design competition was launched. During a chance meeting with Lakshmi Mittal, Chairman and CEO of ArcelorMittal, at the World Economic Forum Summit in Davos in 2009, Johnson secured ArcelorMittal’s support.

While the official press release tries to convey a wonderful Mayor of London joining forces with an equally benevolent steel magnate, this isn’t what I see. Rather, I imagine two opportunists meeting at the water cooler of Globalise London Ltd, sealing a deal that would give Londoners what none of them asked for – this:

Daytime view. Not so appealing.

The paradox of the democratic city is that we are confronted daily with things that nobody has asked for. What’s more, what appears simply ugly during the daytime suddenly becomes endearing when we see it during dusk:

Orbit at night. Suddenly it all looks so great, silhouetted against the sky. Note Europe’s tallest tower, the Shard at London Bridge, visible in the distance. It looks like a shard.

We are the public. When sculpture becomes enlarged into the scale of architecture, we encounter it as a building rather than as a work of art. The Orbit is inhabitable – you can buy a ticket, take a lift up to the viewing platform, and then climb back down on the staircase. While I have been interested in the idea of the inhabitable sculpture in my own projects, I never thought of making it so high. In fact, at 115 metres, the Orbit is the 33rd tallest building in London – beating the Battersea Power Station by two metres.

I am sure in years to come, we will find it hard to imagine East London without the Orbit. The French poet and aesthete Baudelaire detested the Eiffel Tower when it first appeared – to him, it represented everything that was wrong about industrialisation, modernity and aesthetics. We, however, are accustomed to the growth of tall buildings in London – the Gherkin, the Shard, the Orbit. They are all branded, given cute and memorable names by the PR departments of property development corporations in order to convince us that they represent more than hundreds of tonnes of steel, or thousands of prime office space.

There are no aesthetic criteria when dealing with very large, non-functional objects. We could get classical and talk about the formal qualities of materials and the raw expression of forms of steel. We would talk about the heroic feats of engineering. But that would miss the point. It’s just XL sculpture.

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