Sunday, October 12, 2008

UK's Suicide Sculpture "Celebrates Life", Says Sculptor

More news from a culture besotted with the poison of nihilism: next year commuters in London will get to see "art" depicting a guy being run over by a train:

Rail passengers at London’s St Pancras International station are to be greeted by a work of art depicting a commuter falling into the path of a train driven by a Grim Reaper figure.
The macabre image will appear on a bronze relief frieze at the base of The Meeting Place, the 30ft statue of an embracing couple.
Paul Day, the sculptor, said he was trying to be “truthful” about the human condition and described his images as “a celebration of life”. London & Continental Railways, the station’s owner, said it wanted the work to be “a talking point”.
The frieze has been condemned by families of rail suicide victims and transport unions. Last year almost 200 people took their own lives on Britain’s railways. Paul Smith, whose daughter Rosie, 18, threw herself in front of a Tube train last August, said: “It’s insensitive.”
Insensitive is the most polite term to use for such blatant attempts to inject yet more misery into this suffering world. Sculptor Paul Day's defense of his proposed sculpture is the kind of nihilistic sophistry an artist is reduced to when they recuse themselves from morality. Of all places to exhibit visual images of people committing suicide by jumping in front of a train, the most aggrieving place to display them would be in an actual railway station!

Day, however, claimed the frieze was a deliberate contrast to the “ideal” of the towering lovers embracing above. “It is about daily life – about the hopes and fears, the loves, the joys, the loss and tragedy that are bubbling along together in human life,” he said.
The bronze relief will feature a variety of scenes depicting life on the railways, including images of soldiers going to war and emergency workers dealing with the 7/7 bombings.
“If certain images cause a small amount of offence, I’m sure that will be heavily compensated for by a sense of joy . . . that the other images will give,” said Day. “It’s balance, it’s contrast. The overall effect, I think, will be very positive.”
Of all people, an artist should be perceptive enough to be able to see into the human heart and observe that the degree of "offence" caused by such reminders will be anything but "small".

Last night Kate Redway of the Samaritans said: “It’s really important that any images don’t portray suicide methods. Research has shown that it can lead to an increase in copycat deaths, particularly among young, vulnerable people.”
Rail union bosses called for the frieze to be scrapped. “Every train driver in this country will be sickened by this image,” said Keith Norman, general secretary of Aslef. “A body lying under their wheels is the dark cloud that troubles drivers’ every working day. To see these respectable, professional men and women portrayed as agents of death is insulting, facile and malicious.”
What is art, if it is not a celebration of life? The very art of living life itself should be one of celebration, but the "party" should be seen as the middle stage: we have been given the precious gift of life, therefore we show our appreciation for that gift, so that by how we use that gift we grant meaning to the life we've been given. When you take out the first and third parts of this formula, you're left with art that celebrates nothing more than the vanity of the artist himself... and his self-obsessed sponsors:
LCR said: “... [The frieze] will be a talking point and that is testament to the character of St Pancras International and to this bold commission.”

1 comment:

truepeers said...

In a sense this story shows the problem with all art, its reliance on depicting or implying that which gives our lives their meaning: death, and most importantly the potential for death at the hands of our own humanity. All art depends on sacrificial imagery.

And yet, however discomforting, most of us can't live without art: we need the stories, the meaning it can give our lives.

And so, we might judge art on the value of the meaning that transcends the form's dependence on some kind of closure, or representation of violence. E.g., what is the story and model for living that lives on even after the hero of the story is dead?

It seems to me the present artist can't really justify his relishing in "ambiguity", in the sheer power of violent imagery. Now perhaps it's not up to the artist to take the lead in articulating or re-presenting the value of the work; that's more the responsibility of those who think their railway station is the place for this kind of thing. I see no convincing understanding in the article you link. It seems we are still far too deferential to some unexplored mystery of artists and their role in representing the sacrificial. Maybe that all needs more demystification.

I was once loitering at the end of a Vancouver skytrain platform, looking over the edge at a place where I could see if the friend I was waiting for was coming to the station from her home. After a while, a skytrain guy comes out of one of the trains and politely inquires what I'm doing there. I've been spotted on the security cameras. He tells me I'm in "jumper's ally", a place where the train won't stop in time if someone jumps. He tells me this is a recurring event, a nightmare the staff live with.

Those staff may well need some kind of art. But that would obviously not be the place for a work of art. Even if its representation of violence "worked" and achieved the need to convey a meaning for our souls that could transcend and survive the violence of the representation itself, memorializing the danger of our existence at the very place where a person not in mental repose could be done in by the difference between imagining and (fully, spiritually) transcending violence would only work against any of us achieving the desired transcendence. We don't put war memorials on active battlefields, however much soldiers (and even suiciders) will always need to leave their own personal signs on the scene of death. The more meaningful public art will require the more serene time and situation.

Not seeing through this problem, it seems our artist has not himself found the transcendence he's only pretending to represent.