Photography and Public Art

Flying out of Belfast this morning I managed to muscle aside the small child sitting in the window seat and catch a glimpse of the city's infamous new public art project 'Wish'. This consists of a photograph of a girl rendered in earth and sand in a flat area of land by the old shipyards. Much comment has been made about the fact this work is not visible from the ground making a window seat in a departing flight from the harbour airport the only way of seeing the image, short of hiring a helicopter. Not even the gratifying sense of privilege that my unique perspective had given me could make the viewing of this picture anything other than a disappointment.

The discussions of the work online, read together, would make a good primer on debates around public art and photography. This began in August when the work was first announced on the Belfast Festival website. Artist Dan Shipsides said he found the image clichéd and too oriented towards media distribution, that it was basically PR. When 'Wish' was finished the Belfast Telegraph published their inevitable article praising its enormous size and trying to generate some mystery around the identity of the girl in the picture. But even the Telegraph soon after published a column by Fionola Meredith denouncing the post-troubles rhetoric that has been used to describe it. Finally, Daniel Jewesbury posted an extended examination of 'Wish' on the public art in Belfast blog saying, among other things, that it demonstrated an impoverished idea of what public engagement involved and making some telling remarks about the nature of aerial photographs.

My fleeting view of the picture reminded me of a remark made by Richard Hollis at a conference, that newspaper art directors in the 1970s considered that photographs should be cropped until they couldn't be cropped any more. He was dismayed by the reductive attitude this displayed. Effectively, a picture cropped in this way was designed to make the simplest point possible with the least possible context. But even the harshest picture editor would have struggled to crop an image as severely as the portrait of a girl in 'Wish' has been trimmed. She looks as if she is peering out through an aperture she wouldn't be able to fit her head through. We can't see her ears, her temples or her chin, you see more features on an emoticon. But all this paring back of the meaning of the image, what has it left us with? An unknown person symbolising a vague aspiration.

When I landed I looked at the BBC website and saw a story about the Cerne Abbas Giant being given a moustache as a publicity stunt. This reminded me of many other PR generated pictures (such as the Cerne Abbas Giant being co-opted to promote the Simpsons Movie). PR pictures generally make their points very effectively, they are often funny and can be inventively site-specific. Photographs that come about through stunts or PR campaigns form a rarely discussed genre (that I'd like to return to in a future issue of Source) in which a picture is designed primarily to infiltrate the media. 'Wish' fits that model, it's meant to be photographed rather than seen, even from a plane leaving Belfast.

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