King Kong bellows silently outside the Henry Moore Institute on The Headrow, Leeds. It’s January 2017 and it’s freezing and the big lad is starkers, so it’s understandable that he’s a bit disgruntled. That, and someone seems to have nicked his wedding tackle. Though, as I said, it is very, very cold. I’ve always found the genetically over-sized primate to be a sympathetic figure. In his battles with Godzilla, I’ve always rooted for the big ape. And when I consider his treatment in the original RKO film from 1933, didn’t he have every right to be angry? Who did the filmmakers think our sympathies should lie with? Did they think that he should have performed without protest for his evolutionary betters? I’m sure there were some who’d love to have piloted one of the planes that shot him from the Empire State Building (I know a few – twats to a man). But I’d have been on Kong’s side. Albeit keeping a bit of distance.
This Kong, by Nicholas Munro, was originally commissioned for the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation’s City Sculpture Project of 1972. Here’s some spiel from the Henry Moore Institute:
‘Sculpture was talk of the town in Britain in the summer of 1972. It was being interrogated, debated, written about and photographed – and regularly appeared in regional and national newspapers, often with damning criticism and complaint. This was down to the City Sculpture Project, a hugely ambitious public sculpture scheme that supported the commissioning of large-scale works… For a period of six months, between March and November 1972, sculptures were installed in eight cities in England and Wales. From Nicholas Monro’s over five-metre tall statue of King Kong in Birmingham, to Liliane Lijn’s revolving cone in Plymouth and William Turnbull’s six-part stainless steel sculpture Angle in Liverpool, these works all reimagined sculpture’s relation to the city and the urban viewer.’
March to November 1972… when Marc Bolan was in his pomp and David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This was also the six months that saw chess become a national obsession as Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played for the World Championship, the Second Cod War between the UK and Iceland and the terrorist attack at the Summer Olympics where Mark Spitz cleaned up in the swimming. Dirty Harry and The Godfather were in the cinemas – as was Carry on Matron and Carry On Abroad. Even in the exhibition’s black and white photographs, Britain in 1972 looks a cooler, better designed place.
The cities that originally housed the sculptures were Sheffield, Liverpool, Cardiff, Southampton, Cambridge, Plymouth, Birmingham (home to Kong) and another that I’m struggling to find listed on the Henry Moore Institute’s (HMI) website (the site’s paucity of information will become a theme). The Leeds exhibition at the HMI brings together what remains of the works that were commissioned (other than Kong and William Turnbull’s Angle, the other 1972 exhibits now seem to exist only in photographs and models), and drawings for some that were submitted but not taken up. Personally, I can’t see any difference in quality between those that made it and those that didn’t, but then, as now, as always, it’s not what you know… As I often find (such as at the Hepworth in Wakefield) there is more aesthetic quality in the way these pieces are displayed, than there is in the actual exhibits. It’s all beautifully done, and I especially liked the artist’s graphical/tech drawings, annotated in ink and old school typewriter, with rudimentary photographic mock-ups (there was no Photoshop in 71/72) – the Sky’s Edge proposal behind the Parkhill Flats in Sheffield was a favourite – and the newspaper reports. But when it comes down to the installations it’s the usual collection of metal tubing, concrete and RSJs, held together with reinforcing spikes and spot welding, that resembles the B&Q stock yard. Most of the exhibition fails on the simple test posed by the question: ‘Could I have done it myself?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s a case of ‘move along, nothing to see here’. With all of the exhibits there was none of the mystery of creation. There was no moment where I thought: How did they do that?!
That said, I was struck by how a shape or angle can convey a sense of culture and place – the contours of Bernard Schottlander’s ‘Untitled (Red)’ (that stood outside The Crucible in Sheffield in ‘72) somehow looking Japanese. And I liked the vox pop recordings prompted by Garth Evan’s installation in Cardiff (I’d like to tell you what it was called, but I can’t remember and if there is information on the Henry Moore website, it’s well hidden… It’s all Kong! Kong! Kong!) that were played alongside some of the exhibits, bringing the original idea for the exhibition (and a moment in time) to life. In the five minutes or so that I sat and listened to the voices from 1972, the reactions were universally negative. The very fact that Evans went out to record the responses indicates to me that he was expecting people to be either angry or bemused. Which makes his motivation ambiguous at best, and perhaps even deliberately and perversely obtuse – which, in the Oh no, Yoko… school of installation/performance art is a discipline in itself. Where any reaction is better than no reaction at all. Maybe.
Kong is the only figurative piece. If I put my bullshit/A-Level Art essay filter on for a moment, with his broad, powerful shoulders and big belly, the silent scream, not to mention his lack of genitalia, shirtless in the cold weather, he is the perfect analogy for male working class disenfranchisement/unfocused aggression/emasculation and as such, the best representation of ‘The Spirit of Brexit’ in public art that I’ve seen…
That’s not to say I don’t like Munro’s Kong, because I do. But is it ‘art’ any more than the Kong who greets customers and passers-by outside the ‘Kong Adventure’ climbing wall in Keswick (my boxer dog Bertie weed up his leg once)? The used car dealer who bought Munro’s Kong when the original 1972 exhibition closed wasn’t daft – browsing the web for any mentions of the 1972 exhibition and it’s Kong that gets all the press (not even the Institute’s own web site lists all of the 1972 exhibits in one place). Because a big gorilla draws people in (which is why they dragged the original Kong from Skull Island to New York in the first place), unlike say, ‘Work for Arundel Gate, Sheffield’ (a column built with nineteen identically shaped boxes and nineteen identical horizontal planes, height: 5.9 metres) by Kenneth Martin. I bet Munro’s Kong helped flog some Vauxhall Chevettes and Rover P6s (one lady owner) back in the day; whereas I can’t see Martin or Schottlander’s works helping to shift many old bangers, full service history and a complimentary full tank of four star, or not. And something tells me that William Turnbull’s six-part stainless steel sculpture Angle struggled to find a buyer after the exhibition closed (none of the purchase options – not even Kong’s, hence the car dealership gig – were taken up by the councils that exhibited them) – though I’m sure Harold Steptoe (the penultimate series of Steptoe and Son airing as the exhibition opened) would have been happy to take it off his hands.
I think Munro should have been more ambitious and come up with a design/mechanism where Kong would be attachable to the side of a building, so that, for instance, when he was exhibited in Leeds, we could have seen him with one hand gripping the top of Cuthbert Broderick’s Town Hall clock tower, the other hand curled into a big fist, raised defiantly to those looking up at him from below. Make him inflatable, perhaps? As impressive as he is, I think my idea would have topped it. As he stands, mute and frustrated, Munro’s Kong is not a threatening presence, bless him, despite his bright red eyes. Not like the slightly sinister, pagan rabbits (hares, apparently) of Sophie Ryder that tip up in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Everyone loves Kong. Every right-minded person sympathises with him… Though, I might observe, that his slightly occluded position (the War Memorial outsizes him from the road) has saved Kong from the attentions of late night drinkers, who in smaller towns where his appearance would be more of an event in the local press, he would have been a bigger pull, and attracted (for better or worse) more attention. Certainly, a few miles down the track in Barnsley someone would have seen the big lad flexing his muscles in the street of a Friday night and taken him on.*
* See the above comment on Brexit.