We are delighted to bring you an exclusive interview with Toby Paterson, one of Scotland’s most successful contemporary artists. Here he discusses the impact of place in public art. Artworks appear courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute.
AS: Public art – is there any point?
TP: In terms of the built environment, art is the prism through which everyday experience can be elevated beyond the utilitarian and the mundane. Whether artistic approaches are employed within architecture itself, integrated into public space as a part of the whole or developed retrospectively, public art at its best can enhance the experience of a place for a wide audience.
AS: What makes a ‘good’ piece of public art?
TP: ‘Public art’ is a contested term so it should never be expected that it will have universal appeal. In my opinion, however, ‘good’ public art should take account of its context, and the passage of time around it, and consider as far as possible its likely audience and stubbornly retain its integrity despite practical and political pressures. It can be a tricky thing to achieve!
AS: Of the places you have so far contributed a piece of art, which have you found most inspirational?
TP: Working in the East End of London while developing work for the Stratford International Extension of the DLR was inspiring, sobering and frustrating. The Stratford/ Canning Town axis and its constantly changing population has an incredible and pretty brutal urban history stretching back centuries and, with the Olympics juggernaut rolling through with all the positive and negative things that entailed, I found it a pretty absorbing place to be working.
AS: Without naming names, is there anywhere you have struggled to feel inspired or where you have found it difficult to create? If so, why was that?
TP: To paraphrase Jonathan Meades, there’s no such thing as a boring place! It’s less the context and more the administrative structure of projects that can cause a haemorrhage of enthusiasm and, in this respect, there is one project in Kent (I’ll say no more) that was a real struggle.
AS: What would be your dream public art commission?
TP: I don’t really have a dream project as everything I do is developed out of a response to the unique constraints each situation offers. That’s a boring answer though, so I’ll say a massive public park open to all that’s filled with sculptures that can be interpreted and used by skateboarders and BMXers.
AS: To what extent do you think artists are influenced by the place they were brought up and how much by the place they choose to live and work in later life?
TP: That’s a very good question. Artists are massively and unavoidably influenced by the formative places of their youth. This can be either in the sense of feeling very comfortable in a certain environment or it may lead to a desire for escape and new experiences. I’m a mix of the two. I was always keen to escape Glasgow when I was younger, but once I did I ultimately came to value and appreciate what makes it unique. As a result it’s where I’ve decided to stay and it has a huge impact on me socially, practically and emotionally, all of which aspects of life form the basis from which I can go out into the world and think about what I want to do.
AS: Have you found that cultural tastes vary with geography or are they, these days, more influenced by global fashions and trends?
TP: There is very much an international cultural language and I think that’s been the case for very many decades, culture being way ahead of business when it comes to globalisation. That said, within this broad framework one always seems to come across regional variations with emphases on different forms, ideas and subjects and this can often be the result of the dominant influence of a specific artist or group of artists and support for or reaction against their work.
AS: Is there a growing appetite for public art? If so why?
TP: I’m not sure, but there is certainly a growing appetite for contemporary art in general so it follows that this would be the case.
AS: We’ve moved away from statuary and, in particular, military and religious themes – what themes are popular at the moment and what do you think will be popular in future?
TP: A great many contemporary public artworks trade on notions of community identity, in a sense just being updated versions of the rallying points offered by religion and military victories of the past. Rather than reflecting the past or a reductive view of the present, I tend to be more interested in making things that offer the viewer an opportunity to make hitherto unimagined connections with the context of the work. Putting an unexpected image into somebody’s head always seems more rewarding for me that telling them something they already know. Who knows what the future holds, though!
AS: What piece of public art do you most admire and why?
TP: I love Eduardo Paolozzi’s encrusted, labyrinthine mosaics at Tottenham Court Road tube station in London. He really took on the context he was presented with and made something truly unique and expansively modern that nevertheless offers wonderful echoes from art history. Most of all though, I’m forever enthralled by Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee (below). It’s creation, degradation, rejection and resurrection make for a tale as engaging as the work itself is formally wonderful.
Painter and sculptor Toby Paterson studied at the Glasgow School of Art and was the winner of the 2002 Beck’s Futures Art Prize. He has undertaken many public art commissions including major projects for the BBC in Glasgow and the Olympics in London. His ‘subjective walking tour’ project for Dunfermline – Marking the Way – is launched on Sunday 9 December.