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The art of creative destruction

10 June 2020

‘For me, the statue of Colston is aesthetically the best statue in Bristol,’ the sculptor Hew Locke told the Art Newspaper in 2017. ‘That is where it gets really interesting.’ Locke was discussing Restoration (2006), his series of altered photographs of British statues which included that of Colston, the 17th-century English slaver whose effigy now sits at the bottom of Bristol Harbour.

In Restoration, Locke created enlarged prints of his subjects – statues of imperialists such as Colston and King Edward VII – and drilled holes into them, fixing gold decorations, medallions and jewellery to the figures until they were almost entirely submerged in the material. Like with many of his other works, Locke engages with these symbols in order to subvert them, adding imagery (some of which comes from African, Caribbean and South American traditions, partly drawing on Locke’s Guyanese and British heritage) that teases out the parts of history which statues like these exist to obscure rather than illuminate. Colston, for instance, was memorialised only in the late 19th century, as part of a project to glorify his philanthropic works: a plaque beneath the statue stresses the latter, describing Colston as ‘virtuous and wise’, while avoiding mention of how he made his money.

There’s an almost celebratory aspect to Locke’s creations on first glance, but closer inspection reveals the colour and decoration in his sculptures and paintings is often shot through with images of death: skulls, skeletons, slave ships. For another project, a pitch for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, he proposed reworking a statue of George White, a 19th-century field marshal awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts to help the British Empire conquer Afghanistan. ‘I covered him in medals but twice life-sized,’ Locke told an interviewer in 2006. ‘He is weighted down with the history of military campaigns in Afghanistan.’

Colston from the ‘Restoration’ series (2006). Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery; © Hew Locke/All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.

Colston from the ‘Restoration’ series (2006). Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery; © Hew Locke/All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.

Counter-monuments such as Locke’s work by rebalancing space, both politically and aesthetically, adding new dimensions to familiar objects. He described the effort to combine photography and sculpture in Restoration as a matter of ‘asking what do you have to do to get this balance where they don’t repel each other but they work in harmony?’ But if his gentler approach to confronting British history has been somewhat overtaken by events – Locke also told the Art Newspaper that he’d have loved to redecorate Colston’s statue for real, perhaps ‘wearing a balaclava and doing it in the middle of the night’ – it might have something to teach us about what comes next.

As the after-effects of Colston’s dethronement – ripped from his plinth by Black Lives Matter protesters after years of local campaigning to have the statue removed, or at least have some context added about his slave-trading activities – are showing us, sometimes it takes an act of creative destruction to prompt change. Removing a statue, however, leaves an empty space – something that is both an opportunity and a danger. How, for instance, to ensure that the move to take down statues and rename public places linked to the racist and oppressive parts of a country’s history doesn’t become yet another form of silencing? Venerating a figure like Colston is one way to sanitise the transatlantic slave trade, and its continuing legacy of racism, but so is pretending he never existed in the first place.

In this context, artists’ responses can help – although Locke is also right to warn that they’re hard to get right. ‘There’s a lot of dodgy art, particularly in highly charged spaces,’ he commented in 2017. Conventional monuments often attempt to fix specific (and often narrow) meanings to historical events: think, for instance, about the matrix of statues one walks through on the way from Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall, to the Houses of Parliament; Britain’s official history told in stone. But art that works successfully against the grain can reintroduce a sense of political and cultural creativity to these largely dead spaces.

It doesn’t have to be pompous or heavy-handed, either: while the future of Colston’s ex-plinth remains undecided, three young women have already made their comment on the situation in the form of a dance routine; the video has gone viral on Twitter.