Public art on Clyde Waterfront

Ray McKenzie, Research Fellow at Glasgow School of Art explores the growing array of public art along the banks of the River Clyde and comments on the impact of these new landmarks on the waterfront.

It is hard to put an exact figure on it, but there are by my calculation at least a dozen significant works of sculpture that have been commissioned recently as a result of the regeneration programme that has, for the past decade, been transforming the river Clyde and the 30-mile stretch of riparian landscape it passes through.

There is no centralised policy to control or direct the commissioning process, but it is underpinned by a general recognition of the important role public sculpture can play within the wider pattern of economic regeneration, both as an embodiment of social and commercial aspiration and as a catalyst for further change.  With the initiative coming in every case from independent local projects, the results are predictably varied in terms of scale, style, materials and approach.  There is - or at least there ought to be - something for everyone.

Landmarks from the river

Many of the new works are big enough, and striking enough, to be seen from the river itself, and so fulfil public sculpture's historic function of providing a clearly visible and instantly recognisable landmark.  My own favourite example is Toby Paterson's ebullient Poised Array, which tames the geometric austerity of David Chipperfield's post-post-Modernist BBC HQ on Pacific Quay with a multi-coloured abstraction as joyously irresponsible as a child's plastic windmill.  At five and six metres high respectively, Jephson Robb's Change at Clyde Gate, and Andy Scott's Rise, installed only a few months ago in Meadowside Square, provide equally eye-catching statements, while clearly celebrating in their imagery (chains, propeller blades) and fabrication techniques (welding, casting) the heavy industries on which the river's historic greatness once depended.  An earlier work by Scott, his fibreglass Shipbuilders at Braehead, is an even more explicit tribute to a vanished industrial past.  

History at Clyde View Park

For those who are lucky enough to have access to an appropriate form of water-born transport, all these can be taken in and enjoyed as part of a leisurely cruise down the Clyde.  But there is plenty more public art to be discovered along the various walkways and cycle tracks that run adjacent to the river's edge, and which can be examined at closer range.  The largest concentration of work is at Clyde View Park, also at Braehead, which combines a line of eight small sculptures mounted on pedestals by Kenny Munro, with a two-figure group by David Annand entitled The Writers (Omega).  Once again there is in both cases a recognition that we cannot escape our history: David Annand's writers inscribe a poem by Colette Bryce characterising the present as a moment in which the future and the past are held in suspension; the objects on Munro's pedestals include a miniature steam engine, the Renfrew coat of arms and a portrait of the pioneering aviator Winifred Drinkwater.  

By the waterfront

The use of sculpture in the context of transport systems - including public footpaths, roundabouts, motorways, airports and railway tracks - has burgeoned exponentially in recent years, with results ranging from high-profile projects such as the Angel of the North, which dominates the A1 at Gateshead, to the more modest sculpted 'waymarkers' that punctuate the literally thousands of miles of cycle track commissioned by SUSTRANS all over the country.  But the association with waterways goes back much further.  The most famous sculpture in the world is surely the Statue of Liberty, which has been greeting visitors to New York as they pass through the Upper Bay into Manhatten ever since it was erected in 1886.  But even this mighty work, standing at almost fifty metres high, is a mere statuette compared to the figure that was referred to with wonderment in the Ancient World as the Colossus of Rhodes, the largest sculpture known to history and, as maritime landmarks go, the daddy of them all.

Rivers are roads that move, and carry us whither we desire to go.

This beautiful aphorism by Blaise Pascal encapsulates everything that is fascinating about an historical watercourse such as the river Clyde.  For those among us with itchy feet it speaks of unknown destinations and the romance of what lies beyond.  For those with a more philosophical turn of mind it distils the paradox of an object that is in perpetual flux but has remained in the same place since before recorded time.  As we enter another phase of the river's long and mysterious history, it is already clear that sculpture, in all its myriad forms, will have its own part to play in the regeneration we have been waiting for and dreaming about for so long.

Ray McKenzie
Research Fellow in the Forum for Critical Inquiry
Glasgow School of Art

9 February 2011

  • Public art
    • Rise, by Andy scott at Glasgow Harbour
    • Change at Clydebank, by Hill Jephson Robb
    • The Writers, by David Annand at Clyde View Park in Renfrew Riverside