This is our truth, tell us yours
It’s hard to ignore a pseudospat about public art that involves the words ‘eye-wounding erection.’ Jonathan Jones doesn’t like Newbiggin’s Couple, a monumental sculpture offshore from Newbiggin beach.According to Jones “The stupidest sculpture of the past 20 years has to be this eye-wounding erection on a seashore that never did any harm to anyone. The tasteless, dull, idiotic figures of a man and woman are placed, with monumental ugliness, on top of a gigantic scaffold just to make sure the artwork totally wrecks its environment.”
Typically, Jones doesn’t quite get the context of The Couple. The scaffold they stand on marks the end of a breakwater put in place to save Newbiggin beach, which was being massively eroded. Something had to be there, and in this case, rather than a utilitarian warning triangle, a sculpture was erected.
There’s an interesting account of the process surrounding the couple here: including some poems written by local people, ranging from the banal and the derivative to the interesting and readable. If the test of a piece of art is whether it engages its audience, the couple passes the test as this article notes.
Jones might have a point about public art, even if his point is only that he doesn’t like it. There are worse pieces of public art, even in Northumberland. The Spirit of the Staithes in Blyth is a case in point; brilliant in thought (it reflects the fact that trains formerly did travel that high up on wooden staithes to load coal into ships below in the harbour) but awful in execution since the view I’ve featured can only be obtained by standing on a roundabout in the middle of the road! Bizarrely, too, the reflective surface that glows so well in the photo is west facing- so a symbol of regeneration faces the sunset, not the sunrise.
When I see The Couple, as I do regularly, I read it as a statement about how ordinary people transformed Newbiggin Bay, building a breakwater and importing millions of tons of sand to renew the area’s post industrial life as a tourist town. Sometimes I prefer to see it, not from behind, as many do, but from the side, with my back to St Bartholomew’s on Church Point, a classic site for an ancient Celtic Church, looking across past the Maritime Centre and taking in the sweep of the coast, the same innocent coast that flooded Ellington Colliery and brought a halt to deep mining North of the Tyne.
I know it’s hard for any self respecting art critic to turn a rant against public art into a clickbait list that emulates Buzzfeed, but Jonathan Jones has simply left me suspecting that he’s never been to Newbiggin at all, and that he’s formed his opinion from nothing more than photos of a piece he stylistically disapproves of.