Thursday, 27 May 2010

Can Art help get Britain's canals out of their current financial crisis?

Ignore it, adore it, spit at it or laugh out loud at it... Art always contributes to every society's consciousness. From an English village where playschool pinnies come out for paint play, to the scars of Iraqi slippers on the vandalised statue of a fallen dictator.

But what has art got to do with any campaign to save our waterways? (IWA campaign: Well, everyone knows canals have Roses & Castles – the traditional folk art of the people who worked and lived on canal boats in the Industrial Revolution. Decorated pots and pans add to the tourist attraction, and make neat souvenir trinkets. Good stuff for small craft businesses across the waterways.

But we're not silly, we know pots and pans aren't enough to get the waterways out of their financial crisis?

More public support for the waterways is what matters at the moment. More press coverage. More visitors. Every so often, British Waterways sets artists loose on the towpaths to prick public interest and hopefully prod the press into precious media coverage. Fake holes on the towpath and controversial installations of dog-poo in trees do the trick But imagine the impact of a much grander, iconic, public art project.

My point is this:

Antony Gormley sculptures. Take 3 of his most famous projects:
1) The Angel of The North rolls around every speeding heart on the A1.
2) Iron Man stands silently, with the audacity to rust away in Birmingham city centre.
3) Another Place, Crosby Beach, near Liverpool, where the statues of 100 iron souls gaze out to sea, with hope beyond the tides.

Mr G's sculpture and the spirit of the waterways would go together like jam and Victoria sponge cake. After all, Britain's canals were our first motorways, made for boats during the Industrial Revolution - and now they offer a vision of hope for urban regeneration, and an accessible escape to rural Britain. Right up Mr G's street!

Imagine Gormley's Iron Men of the Waterways, and where they might stand...

The Angel of the Caen Hill flight wistfully watching over travellers?

Iron Waterways Man daubed in Roses & Castles outside the waterways museum? (attracting visitors as the Puppy sculpture does outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao -

Statuesque souls half-immersed in river silt at the moody brink of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal? (Crosby Beach has been inundated with visitors since Gormley's sculptures arrived there)

Or what about a solitary Iron Waterways Man on a lonely bit of the Pennine cruising ring? Or Iron Waterways Man graffiti-sprayed by Camden's community?

Imagine the monumental tourist attraction and what that could do for the canals, politically and financially. Imagine the thrill of one day meeting Iron Waterways Man on your travels.

Canals should always be about boating, but they were born and have survived through a tradition of entrepreneurialism and creativity. The real Iron men (and women) of the waterways.

Am I alone on this one?

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