Liverpool, Land Of The Giants

Little Girl Giant courtesy Chris Pennington

Is the Giant Spectacular great art? And how does it compare to other public art in the city? Mark Evans on the power of the unifying moment…

Today Liverpool officially welcomes back the Giants.  French theatre company Royal de Luxe shook the city’s streets back in 2012 with this unique brand of sculpture, mechanical puppetry and performance art. Back then, the Sea Odyssey spectacular was commemorating the centenary year of the Titanic’s maiden voyage, through a story of a 30ft orphaned girl and her pet dog, Xolo. They navigated Liverpool city centre, meeting the girl’s 50ft diver uncle on their way, who was returning a lost letter to his niece. The entire story was inspired by a real-life letter sent by a 10-year-old girl whose father had worked on the doomed vessel.

This year, the elaborate Memories of August 1914 performance is to mark 100 years since the start of World War One. We see the return of the little girl, and her four-legged friend, but this time joined by a gigantic Grandma Giant.

“As an artist studying in the city, seeing the return of a massive, complex and rather pricey production, I ask myself: what makes good public art?”

As an artist studying in the city, seeing the return of a massive, complex and rather pricey production, I ask myself: what makes good public art?

Liverpool has had its fair share. The majority of great public realm artworks (permanent and temporary) have come from Liverpool Biennial commissions and have utilised the city’s varied buildings and streets. They have also received mixed reviews from critics and the public. Like Doh Ho Suh’s Bridging Home (Biennial 2010), a replica of the artist’s Korean family house, wedged between buildings on Duke Street; or Visible Virals (Biennial 2008) by Stockholm artists collective A-APE (that you can still spot around the city even now).

More controversially, ArtTranspennine’s Taro Chiezo’s Superlambanana was widely disliked when it arrived in 1998; having since been embraced by the general public and it is now subject to regular festivals, spawning mini-effigies around the city. Conversely, Richard Wilson’s Turning the Place Over (Biennial 2008) had tremendous critical acclaim; at the time, festival organisers announced it as “the most radical intervention in architecture to date.” That same piece was switched off in 2011 (it’s now, ironically, covered in a Liverpool Vision advertising banner) and too few locals were ever aware of its existence.

In terms of wider culture, the city regularly plays host to many other popular publicly-funded festivals, live art and performance, like Abandon Normal Devices, ‘Poolside Emergency, Brouhaha, Sound City and Africa Oyé – none of which have enjoyed the same visitor numbers as the Giants.

So what makes Royal de Luxe’s commission a success? Why do they get re-invited to the city?

In Liverpool (as elsewhere), artists working within all disciplines spend all day on their practice; rarely do the products of their labour have such a large audience, but neither are they as fleeting. A piece of art in a gallery, a play in a theatre or music at a concert would take months, if not years, to reach the nearly 1 million individuals that drank in the spectacle of Sea Odyssey.

“Any art designed for public consumption must prepare itself for swift, immediate judgement from non-art lovers, as well as cultural tourists”

Any art designed for public consumption must prepare itself for swift, immediate judgement from non-art lovers, as well as cultural tourists. I often hear the comment: “I really don’t understand all that art stuff”. It’s statement I know a lot of people within the art world – especially fine, live or visual art — will have heard. Public art needs to weave a web through both factions. In my opinion, Royal de Luxe has achieved this balance – it’s a quality production that has enticed huge national and international visitors in addition to winning over the Liverpool community almost instantaneously.

Many artists disagree. When brought up in a recent university fine art seminar, the subject of the 2012 Giant visit aroused much criticism. Some dubbed it a money-making project whose fabricators had little cultural connection to the city; some insisted that the money would be better spent on many smaller but ambitious art projects. These are not arguments that can be dismissed hastily. Sure, the reasons for commissioning a French arts company to lead Liverpool’s tributes to the Titanic do seem obscure. Complaints relating to the company’s heritage I can understand when considering Sea Odyssey, but this time it’s a remembrance of our allied past, and it has extra resonance given the current political unease in Europe. The Sea Odyssey was a ‘money making’ event for Liverpool as well as Royal de Luxe: figures after the £1.5m event in 2012 estimated the area’s economy had profited by £32m. Would this have happened with smaller events? I doubt it.

“Royal de Luxe provide a unifying moment, and that, for me, is great art”

Royal de Luxe’s formula for successful public art is to capture the viewer’s imagination, and maintain a high level of quality and detail throughout. It’s that simple. Open the Giants’ website and you will read about how the mechanical grandmother puppet has travelled in pieces, and has been recovering from her long trip at St. George’s Hall over the last few days. Keeping up the mysticism and magic isn’t lost on children, nor is it lost on adults. When a 50ft, diver-suit clad man strolls past you, dwarfing the buildings around him, it changes your perception of the world. The same streets seemed so boring the day before. In the crowds, no eyes, young or old, leave the moving sculpture. Royal de Luxe provide a unifying moment, and that, for me, is great art. Capturing that transcendent feeling that alters normal reality and changes your mood for the day is incredibly hard to create and maintain.

Long may this city show eagerness in planning and carrying out large-scale cultural celebrations in partnership with such dynamic producers. It poses the challenge to me and my peers studying here to find confidence in our practice and believe we can execute our plans like the professionals. Then, we may have the ability to secure support (and maybe even funding) for our own ambitious arts projects, and Liverpool’s cultural scene will be all the brighter.

Mark Evans

This article has been specially commissioned for The Double Negative by Liverpool John Moores University and Arts Council England. Part of the collaborative #BeACritic campaign — see more here

The Giant Spectacular, Memories of August 1914 continues until Sunday 27 July 2014

Main image courtesy Chris Pennington

Arts Council England

Posted on 25/07/2014 by thedoublenegative