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Friday, July 23, 1999 Published at 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK


You'll either love it or hate it

Ecce Homo - not everyone's idea of Jesus

Six foot and one inch he stands, a marble resin representation of Jesus Christ, bald and minus the familiar thicket of beard.

Ecce Homo, the new life-size statue in London's Trafalgar Square, is a controversial depiction of Jesus.

But its creator, Mark Wallinger, said critics have largely missed the point.

Set against the Victorian grandeur of the square, to some the figure appeared feeble, unimpressive and out of place.

[ image: Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro]
Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro
"You couldn't put your faith in someone like that, he's as weak as a kitten," said one bystander. Another thought it resembled a shop dummy.

It is a world away from Christ the Redeemer, the 98ft statue that towers over the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, beckoning all with outstretched arms.

Which itself is not all that different from Antony Gormley's 65ft-tall Angel of the North outside Gateshead.

Erected last year, close to the A1, the figure drew criticism for its "Nazi gigantism", rusty appearance and £800,000 price tag.

If art is controversial, then the effect of putting it on high streets, by roadsides and in civic centres, is downright schismatic on society.

[ image: Eric Morecambe on Morecambe promenade]
Eric Morecambe on Morecambe promenade

The new 6ft 7ins bronze representation of comedian Eric Morecambe, unveiled in the town after which he named himself, is as close as public art comes to crowd-pleasing.

But even local heroes are not an entirely safe bet. Edinburgh is considering a statue of actor Sean Connery, but his strong views on Scottish independence mean it will inevitably outrage some in the city.

Yet first impressions do not always count. Jo Beddows of Northern Arts insists that almost 18 months after the covers were pulled off the Angel of the North, the statue is widely accepted.

"The people are proud of it and have developed a sense of ownership," she said, stressing that it has put the area on the map.

Certainly anyone in the North East who opposes such grand gestures would be swimming against the tide.

The region is currently in the middle of the biggest public art programme the UK has seen, at a cost of £3.6m.

[ image: Angel of the North - pride of Gateshead?]
Angel of the North - pride of Gateshead?
By the end of the month the Angel will have lost its "tallest sculpture in the country" mantel to a 71ft orangy-red crane-like steel structure by the name of Tyne Anew.

The sculpture, by American artist Mark di Severo, will sit on the old industrial waterfront outside Newcastle upon Tyne.

The "art for all" scheme has consciously rejected honouring populist celebrities.

"As far as I know, no one here wants a statue of Alan Shearer in the city centre," says Ms Beddows.

Maybe it is a good thing too. One statue of the former Newcastle United hero Jackie Milburn had to be moved from the centre of the city because it kept being vandalised.

In Nottingham vandals used to steal the arrow from a statue of local outlaw Robin Hood, while late-night revellers in Cardiff regularly crown a figure of one-time Labour minister, Aneurin Bevan, with a traffic cone.

In Birmingham sceptics found a sympathetic voice in the evening newspaper, which waged a campaign against one of Antony Gormley's earlier works, Iron: Man. Another sculpture, the glass-fibre moulded Forward, was also widely despised when erected at the start of the 1990s.


Arts editor of the Birmingham Post, Terry Grimley, says the city is "very under-educated" in the visual arts and that public art has become a political football.

"The Conservatives used it to attack the Labour-run council which commissioned these works," said Mr Grimley.

Forward, a cream-coloured work known locally as the Lurpak sculpture because it looks to be carved out of butter, is supposed to represent the city's early 1990s renaissance.

[ image: The 'Lurpak sculpture' has been highly controversial]
The 'Lurpak sculpture' has been highly controversial

People objected to its communist-style social-realism, and felt glass-fibre was a down-market material, he says.

But sometimes the public's antipathy to art is not even considered.

"A colleague was out asking people what they thought of Iron: Man. She was standing next to the sculpture and would watch people walking up to it with eyes cast down at their shoes.

"When she stopped them they looked up at it for the first time and without hesitation dismissed it."

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