Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

Several months back, to try and take the local population's mind off the ever-present building work in the town (seems like it's been going on for the last 45 years), Ashford's burghers decided to embark on an ambitious display of public art installations located around the town's ring road, which was in the throes of being changed from a one way race track to two-way traffic as part of Europe's biggest shared space scheme (where road traffic and pedestrians use the same areas). These works included hoardings depicting local worthies, a nest of roadsigns in the shadow of the town's largest building, paintings on the road surface, performances and the papering of the shell of the old empty South Kent Tech building and then decorating it with graffiti. It was called "The Lost O", the O being the ring road itself. It was all timed to coincide with the Tour de France passing through in early July.

It has to be said that not all of this stuff was met with general approval. Such is the nature of public art and art in general; if it doesn't challenge us to view things from different perspectives then it's not really working and anyway, no artist can ever hope to be universally popular. Performance art leaves me cold - one of those things that probably seemed like a really really really brilliant idea after some medicinal fags but in reality is utter bollocks. Most of it was temporary and has gone now. It was different and naturally provided plenty of ammo for the local Sir Buftons to get worked up over in the Kentish Express.

A little background here: Ashford is a town of philistines. It's not through the want of trying but the town really has resisted all efforts to embrace culture. The local catchment is around 100,000, that's an 8 fold increase in 80 years. Yet Ashford has no theatre (I once saw Ionescu's "Rhinocerous" in the sports centre. An unfathomable play at best to an 18 year-old and the sports centre location made it like watching some over-ambitious 6th formers making arses of themselves), no music venues (no big bands ever hit Ashford, despite the sports hall. Apart from the Tygers of Pan Tang in 1980), no proper gallery and for a while it never even had a cinema after the fleapit (really called "The Cinema") was demolished to make way for the international station. The town centre Odeon, the third largest building in the town, has been a bingo hall for 30 years now. It's only since the channel tunnel opened 15 years ago that decent restaurants started to appear. It was a complete cultural vacuum. It looks like things may be changing; there are stirrings.

Oliver Winconek is an urban artist currently working in Ashford and is also chairman of Ashford Visual Artists. He's also working phenomenally hard to get Ashford to recognise what art can do in the community. Back in November he erected a self-funded piece of large-scale public art on a piece of waste ground near the station. Nimby is a lifesize wooden elephant being chased by two wooden policemen. The elephant's a humorous representation of public art and the police, the public and their attitude towards it. Gentle satire. Reaction was instantaneous as passing drivers contacted the local radio stations to announce that an elephant was heading towards the ring-road, something I wish I'd heard. It was removed when the land it was on was required for a temporary car park. Predictably, considering Ashford's antipathy towards art, there was an outcry. Not quite what you'd imagine though. There was a real outcry about the graffitid building (even though it's all gone now) and the fake road markings were confusing people as were the roadsigns (even though they were all in a bunch and nowhere near a road). No, Nimby turned out to be immensely popular. There were even letters in the paper demanding her return and I can't remember seeing one complaining about her, everyone seemed to get the joke. People want her for a landmark, something to identify the town through and that's great. She's now been given a place of her own and will shortly be erected on Elwick Road opposite the new Debenhams. On Saturday she paid a fleeting visit to Bank Street where I had a brief chat with the artist. He was utterly charming and told me that he's been completely surprised by the reception Nimby has had. He's not done too badly out of it either and has had to employ a PA. So public art is generating employment which can't be bad. There was a coincidence too when I told him that I'd lived in Crewe for several years and that it was very similar in many ways to Ashford only for him to reply that he knew because he'd also lived there years ago. Maybe the two towns should have a cultural twinning. Now there's a prospect.

10 Vegetable peelings:

Blogger Tennessee Jed said...

Crazy story, nifty town you live in.

2:16 am  
Blogger Phil said...

Nice one Richard. Perhaps you should explain the ironic significance of 'nimby'...

7:35 am  
Blogger Dave said...

Judging by the last photo, Nimby is a 'life-size' baby elephant. Thus tugging at the public heartstrings in two ways - dumb animals and infants.

8:04 am  
Blogger Murph said...

How can you say Ashford is a cultural void when you have the Outlet Centre?

10:20 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Hard to imagine I know, Murph. It was designed by Richard Rogers, you know. It's next to the award winning International Station.

8:53 pm  
Blogger Malc said...

Twinned with Crewe? Sounds more like Shrewsbury - a town where the inhabitants would be Philistines if they could bloody well spell it.
All forms of culture from football through to theatre meet some form of carping or resistance. The influx of nouveau-riche Brummies over the last few years has done nothing to change it.

Ashford, on the other hand, must be a fine place if Nimby has been given a place of his/her own. Now that's what I call art!

4:56 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Malc, Shrewsbury gave us T'Pau. Ashford, Mark Rylance, the first gentleman to have full sex in a mainstream film. And Nursie out of Blackadder. No contest.

7:53 pm  
Blogger zoe said...

ashford is a dump. but there again, i've not been back since i was 16 - apart from 2 hours in the station when the eurostar didn't want to go any further. the best bit about that trip was that the bar had been left open and unattended ....

8:03 am  
Blogger Malc said...

I had the privilege to see T'Pau bottled off stage at Tiffany's in Shrewsbury back in 1981 (I think). They were support for Bad Manners (!). The busload of skins from Wolverhampton didn't like it when they tried playing ska! We had to make our own fun in those days.

9:49 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Zoe, there are proper roads now. And the electricity.

Malc, Bad Manners played Crewe carnival 5 years ago. I enjoyed them. They didn't play "China in Your Hand" though.

8:07 pm  

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