A load of symbollocks

Large-scale public art symbolising regional identity is nothing new – novelist GK Chesterton predicted the idea more than a century ago, says Hugh Pearman

I don’t entirely blame Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North for the rash of similarly scaled projects that are now being proposed everywhere.

Of course, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of me-too going on. Horses seem to be latest the thing. A giant white horse (‘The Stallion of the South’ as it has been dubbed) is artist Mark Wallinger’s proposal for the godforsaken Ebbsfleet Valley in Kent. Two giant steel heads of the mythical water-horses known as kelpies will soon grace the entrance to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, thanks to artist Andy Scott. They will nod to and fro, somehow operating a canal boat lift in the process. What’s going on?

All these things are part of our new quest for regional identity, feeding off a desire for distinctiveness, and it is happening much as novelist GK Chesterton predicted in a fantasy novel of 1904. There have been proposals for Sheffield to have colossal artworks alongside its motorway, for Wales to have something less useful but more picturesque than a suspension bridge, for the flatlands of East Anglia to have some great vertical feature (isn’t Ely Cathedral enough?) and so on. London, arguably, already has two – the London Eye and the Millennium Dome (now The O2). But neither of those has today’s big necessity – a dash of cod-mysticism.

Whereas museums and concert halls have specific functions – even if the contents are increasingly often an afterthought – all the angels and stallions and kelpies don’t. The true point of the exercise is to aid regeneration by generating recognition. These things are sophisticated advertisements masquerading as art.

This is why I must refer you to Chesterton’s great short novel of 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Chesterton is unjustly neglected. His ‘introductory remarks on the art of prophecy’ are brilliantly true. Real life always proves the Futurists wrong, he maintains, so he refuses to get into the predictions game. ‘When the curtain goes up on this story, 80 years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now,’ he proclaims.

So that brings us to 1984. Chesterton’s version has a few points in common with George Orwell’s. It’s a drab world where democracy is dead, though the king is a randomly selected civil servant rather than a monstrous dictator. Everything changes when the latest king turns out to be an individualist prankster who turns the London boroughs into city states, complete with ridiculous made-up ceremonial, preposterously colourful medieval uniforms and, of course, landmark symbols – such as the giant hammer of Hammersmith. Eventually, there is a war against greedy developers, won by the protesters of Notting Hill.

It is, of course, an allegory of devolution. And despite Chesterton’s claim that all Futurism was bunk, how right he is being proved. The angels and stallions and kelpies are pure Chesterton. The very idea of Ebbsfleet and its massive symbolic horse would have had him weeping with joy. And here’s the interesting thing. Although his novel starts in 1984, it ends in the early 21st century. In other words, he got it spot-on. It’s uncanny. Even London Mayor Boris Johnson has quite a bit in common with his loose-cannon King Auberon.

I think we’ll be seeing more big useless public art. And the next design thing will presumably be bonkers heraldry. Like the novel, it will be mad and dangerous – but fun.

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