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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Beginnings of the Ent: Moseley's 'Tolkien' statue proposal.

Shoot First

It was good to hear several objections to the 'Tolkien' statue at tonight's Moseley Society AGM, and it was interesting to see who joined the usual suspects in support of the thing. To be fair, David Isgrove put forward a halfway convincing presentation, particularly in relation to justifying a statue in the first instance. Halfway convincing because the other half was contradictory and not well thought-through.

Here's the logic behind the thing.

1. Once upon a time, a tree was cut down on the village green and something was meant to replace it, but no funds were available.

2. Moseley traders wanted some sort of gimmick to attract visitors. This idea has been kicking around for many years, particularly when the village was sorely in need of regeneration, and touristy gimmicks would have helped revive the place. Maybe some sort of Moseley Mascot would do the job. (I'm not sure that's called for now, with Moseley developing a clear identity as the 'creative village'.)

3. A lot of people enjoy Tolkien's work, and the fact is that he lived round here and was inspired by playing in Moseley Bog and roundabouts. So there's some justification for acknowledging that Moseley inspired the kid.

4. Moreover, certain of Tolkien's characters can be said to embody some of the spirit of Moseley: something about leafy, anti-industrial tree huggers. I didn't catch all of that bit. This thing called Treebeard is taken as a symbol of Moseley spirit. So far so good. We've got young Tolkien, we've got Moseley spirit. There's potential here.

5. Now, everyone knows that Moseley Bog or Sarehole Mill are the appropriate places to place whimsical Hobbit-type characters. But Moseley traders want people visiting Moseley, not Sarehole, so they need to have some rationale for keeping the thing on the village green. (Not up Alcester Road at the Hammond Building, with its big empty forecourt, where Tolkien actually lived.)

6. None of the traders seem to think that people would come to Moseley before or after their trip to the bog/Sarehole. They haven't got the faith to put up signs saying 'Moseley: this way'. 'Nice atmosphere, have a fine meal in our petit-François bistro, sit on the green where the tree used to be, wander up to Hammond house, check out the authentic Moseley vibe.' Come to Moseley and be inspired. Cool. I can dig it.

7. But traders don't think that way. Don't ask me why. I don't know the answer. They seem stuck on this idea that the Treebeard has to be in Moseley village centre in order to attract people to their shops. Not Sarehole, nor Moseley Bog. There are even people who want to keep tourists away from Moseley Bog, as they'll undoubtedly ruin the place. Oh, the shame!

8. Somehow, they also overlooked the idea that a statue - or any other sort of public art in a village green - should reflect the aspirations of local people. Village greens developed around the idea of community, and that's where war memorials, heroic statues, sacred objects and other icons of civic aspiration are placed. The idea is that we have tangible reminders of the things we value most highly. Statues personify the arts, sciences, justice, liberty, industry and so on. Abstract things, mainly, but also things like sacrifice. So, what does Treebeard personify? Woodland culture? Okay. I can appreciate that. But the point is not made very clearly. It looks more like a gimmick. It's about attracting the punters, not reflecting the aspirations and values of Moseley citizens.

9. So far we've got this mascot-thing on the green instead of the bog, and it's partly a gimmick, and partly a reflection of Moseley's green credentials. It's somewhat convincing. It's not all that great. The bog is still a better place for it. There are more considerations to the scheme, but as you will see, the rationale gets worse, not better.

10. The brutality of modern life means art must be equally brutal, if not violent. Survival is the key thing. Forget about any other artistic quality. Forget about delicacy, forget about subtlety, forget about sensitivity. In order to survive, the thing has to be vandal-proof. This means no flammable materials. Definitely not wood. So, right off the bat, the designers are giving in to the mindset that art has to be attackable, has to be hardened against whatever anyone might throw at it. This is common sense, but it's also deeply cynical, and mean-spirited. If one is going to produce cynical art works, a lump of cinder or a bar of iron will suffice, and we can just tell ourselves it's an abstract statue of a Tolkien character. It's bullet-proof, fireproof, paint-proof, you name it.

11. Note that the trees in Moseley bog don't get burned. There are some big, dead, trees that would burn quite spectacularly, thank you. But they are not burned. Maybe someone would burn the trees if sculptures were carved into the dead wood. However, the trees are in Moseley Bog, so they are not acceptable as prospects, regardless of whether anyone would burn them.

12. Okay, we've touched on the vandal-proof thing. Now we have to talk about why it has to be climb-proof. Insurance. Mindless vandals and children might damage the thing, or might injure themselves. So no climbing. In fact, the statue has to be so massive that nobody can get up it. The idea is that if the thing is the size of a mature tree, its limbs will be well out of reach, and nobody will get injured by climbing up and falling down.

13. Climb-proof means no playing on or around. It means hands-off to kids. I suspect many of them will be bitterly disappointed to find that they cannot climb all over the thing, the way people climb on the bull sculpture at the Bullring, and the way kids used to climb on the Forward sculpture in Centenary Square. Tactile sculptures are great things, especially for kids. So the designers of the Treebeard are rebuffing children by putting up a gigantic fantasy character and making it inaccessible. Naughty. Mean-spirited. Especially considering that this statue is meant to commemorate the tree-climbing adventures of a young Mr. Tolkien. Someone is missing the plot.

14. We're not done yet. We've got a vandal-proof, child-rebuffing gimmick on the green, but that's not all. It also has to 'compete with the buildings', according to Tim Tolkien. You see, it's got to grab people's attention, because they'll miss it otherwise. Forget about having it blend in with the context, this thing has to shout down the Bull's Head, overwhelm the real trees, distract drivers from the road signs and shopfronts along St. Mary's Row, and maybe even compete with the church itself. Heathen thing that it is.

15. 'Competing with buildings' is another way of saying 'make it as obnoxious as possible. As I said above, art has to be brutal, if not violent. It has to violate any sense of cohesion or subtlety. Anyone who says public art has to compete with it surroundings is effectively taking an antagonistic stance in relation to the existing context. It's a two-fingerd approach, not a considerate one. Fuck Moseley façades, it says. Fuck Moseley architecture. Fuck whatever semblance of village charm it still has. Put that monster in the green, make it so big that it can't be avoided. In a word, make it ugly. Then wait for drunkards to puke all around its legs.

16. Wait. There's more. Bits of this thing are for sale. You will be able to have your company name or logo pressed into bits of the statue. The floor will be littered with metal leaves, each bearing the name of a patron. These leaves will also be vandal-proof, welded or cemented into place so that passers-by will see your name in perpetuity. Granted, this can be a good thing, as it can democratise public art through small cash contributions. But it can also be hijacked by big donors who want advertising space. I'm not sure I like that prospect.

17. You've had enough of this rant, right? Too much of my rough-shod trampling of what is in some ways a very good idea. Okay, I'll ease off, for now. You've read about the contradictions and the not-so-well-thought-through aspects of the scheme. That's my perspective on the thing. We haven't heard any of the objector's words yet. We also haven't heard the good stuff about this scheme. As I said, it's halfway convincing. It has its good points. I may still get to that bit.