BRISTOL – The capital of England’s West Country, Bristol, is a very visual place. Houses are painted in bright colors and the city center is dominated by the graceful shapes of the sailing ships on the Floating Harbour, which faces the blue Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea.
Bristol is also very visual in another sense: For more than three decades it’s been a special hotbed for public art. Sculpture, performance, and street art started blooming in its streets during the bleak years of the 1970s recession and under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. With the turn of the century, the economic recovery and the efforts of a talented group of artists and curators propelled the city into one of the world capitals of public art.
Right at the center of Bristol, on the Floating Harbour, is Pero’s Bridge, a pedestrian footbridge named in honor of Pero Jones, who came to live in the city in 1784 as the slave of a famous Bristolian merchant. The bridge, designed by Irish artist Eilis O’Connell, opened in 1999 as part of an effort to shed more light on the role of the slave trade in Bristol’s history. It’s one of the many examples of public art that make the city special to this day.
Another is The Black Cloud, an imposing wooden pavilion designed by international artists Heather and Ivan Morison in association with architect Sash Reading, which stood for four months in 2009 in Victoria Park in South Bristol.
At one end of Pero’s Bridge, on Narrow Quay, is the Arnolfini Gallery, one of the key places where new reflections on the purpose of public art started in the mid-1990s, thanks to Caroline Collier, its director until 2005, now at the Tate in London. Caroline was a mentor to Claire Doherty, curator and founding director of Situations, a group based at the Spike Island Gallery, a short walk away along the River Avon. Situations paved the way for a new form of public art in the early 2000s.
Talking with Doherty in the Spike Island Café, it’s not hard to see how this dynamic, elegant, charismatic, and open-minded arts professional succeeded in bringing major changes to the slightly outdated world of British public art circa 2000. With the help of the University of the West of England, and thanks to some financing from the Bristol City Council, she set up Situations as an independent two-year program whose goal was to think about the role of public art and its social context.
Doherty’s main idea was to think through the whole process of creating public artworks “from the studios to situations,” as she told me. Beginning in 2003, she organized lecture programs, inviting some of the key figures in the public art sector, such as the French sculptor Daniel Buren.
In 2009, Situations received an award and a £30,000 grant. It became an independent charity in 2012 and set up some new principles for public art when Doherty published the booklet The New Rules of Public Art in 2013.
Her “Rule no. 01” states that “it doesn’t have to look like public art. The days of bronze heroes and roundabout baubles are numbered. Public art can take any form or mode of encounter—from a floating Arctic island to a boat oven—be prepared to be surprised, delighted, even unnerved.” Rule no. 02: “It’s not forever.” Other rules encourage artists to go for the unplanned, create links inside the community, embrace provocation, and remain open to outside people and ideas.
“Our new independence allowed us to become an organization with an artistic vision,” says Doherty. “And that also comes from the fact that Bristol has the perfect size, unlike London, to be able to quickly, as a new actor, contribute to its scene on a large level. We then felt we had a purpose and a role.”
Looking for Renewal
In 2014, Situations launched events that quickly brought about a turning point. The Art Weekenders, three-day marathons of artist talks, studio visits, performances, cross-genre installations, and other events across the city, highlighted pieces by Marcus Jefferies and Colin Higginson, among others.
Then came 2015, a special year for public art in Bristol. In July, English sculptor and land artist Richard Long, born in Bristol in 1945 and trained at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, was commissioned by Arnolfini to develop a temporary public artwork for the Bristol Downs public parklands as part of his solo exhibition, Richard Long: Time and Space, at the Arnolfini Gallery. The artistic year culminated in November 2015, when the brilliant Chicago-born artist Theaster Gates staged his first UK public project in Bristol, as part of the cultural program for Bristol 2015 European Green Capital.
Entitled Sanctum, it set up, with the support of Situations, a temporary structure within the shell of the fourteenth-century Temple Church, using discarded materials from various places across the city. Gates invited musicians and performers to sustain a continuous offering of sound and spoken words in the structure, 24 hours a day for 24 straight days. Among the performing artists who participated in Sanctum were the Bristol Reggae Orchestra, the Dead Astronauts, William The Conquered, banjo player Béla Fleck, and a gospel choir, as well as local playwright Edson Burton and poet Miles Chambers. The aim was to foster a space for collaboration and new encounters. More than 700 performers took part.
“Theaster is very generous, and in every artwork he does he brings in other great talents,” says Claire Doherty. “I went to meet him personally in Chicago and I was delighted to discover he knew about Situations and he knew about Bristol, mainly thanks to its fantastic music scene! He is a fan of Massive Attack and Portishead. When he arrived in Bristol, he immediately picked up on its aesthetics.”
For Doherty, the value of such a performance doesn’t lie in its duration but in “how it lives on, unlike official statues! Part of the beauty comes from the fact that it’s going away. It is difficult to commission, but it’s what we aim to do: value the experience, attract people, and increase their well-being.”
A City of Different Parts
Bristol is a special place for the arts in the UK because, according to Doherty, “it is a city made of lots of different parts that don’t often get to speak to each other.” For her, one of the roles of public art is to bring about a dialogue among all these parts.
Bristol’s diversity has been key to its cultural bloom since the 1980s. That diversity was first reflected in its underground music scene, in which some of the city’s brightest youth started mixing strains of punk rock with reggae and nascent hip-hop. The mix grew popular in the mainly Jamaican communities in Saint Pauls, Knowle West, Barton Hill, and elsewhere. In 1983, a young artist with the pseudonym 3D started painting graffiti in different areas of Bristol, inspired by New York graffitists such as Futura 2000. 3D’s pieces melded wording, can-made art, and figurative decorations.
Born Robert Del Naja in 1965, 3D soon became the main artist working with the DJ collective The Wild Bunch. His art enlivened the walls of places such as The Dug Out nightclub, the Special K café, and the Hamilton House community center in Stokes Croft, a street that links the Saint Pauls area with the city center.
The movement started to explode when, in July 1985, the Arnolfini organized the first graffiti exhibition in a British gallery, Graffiti Art, with the 20-year-old 3D at the center of events, along with local artists, New Yorkers, and Birmingham-based Goldie. After that, and thanks to the influence of American photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s book Subway Art and Charlie Ahearn’s film Wild Style, graffiti evolved in Bristol as a very special form of street art. Influenced by 3D, well-known artists Nick Walker and Inkie emerged in the late 1980s.
“Lots of young artists were linked by then and kept in touch,” says Inkie, aka Tom Bingle, born in 1970. “At the Barton Hill Youth Club, [youth worker] John Nation started to have a whole library of photographs from our murals and some space always available to paint. There were so many connections between us that Bristol rapidly became an epicenter for graffiti.”
Also a lyricist and rapper, 3D became a founding member of the band Massive Attack in 1988. Ten years later, also inspired by 3D’s murals, and with the help of John Nation, the man who would become the most renowned street artist in the world appeared in Bristol: Banksy. To this day, Banksy’s 1998 mural The Mild Mild West still adorns the wall of Hamilton House, attracting thousands of visitors every month.
A whole new generation followed, with artists such as Cheo, Cheba, Cosmo Sarson, Angus, and Conor Harrington leaving their mark on the city. And in 2015, Bansky made a spectacular return to his home region by opening a “bemusement park,” baptised Dismaland, in Weston-super-Mare, a few miles from Bristol. Few unauthorized public art projects of such daring have been set up with such success. Bristol’s official public art is thriving, but it’s the celebrated outlaw Banksy who now epitomizes how much the city has to offer in terms of art beyond gallery walls.