Bruce Asbestos: “OK! Cherub!”

Bluecoat Courtyard, until 5th June 2022, free

There was once a time when I thought that successful public art was that which deliberately sought to connect to place. Not to say it couldn’t be fun, but that it should have something earnest in how it relates to the place it resided in. Then I worked in public art and realised, no. In fact I became cynical about what impact pieces which blandly, virtuously, strive for direct relation to place can actually have. Iconic works of public art are rare, and they’re rarely so straightforward. It turns out – surprise, surprise – that it’s ambitious creativity, not righteous intentions, which gets work to resonate with its public.

a large inflatable smiley face head on its side in a courtyard in the foreground. Behind this we can see two other inflatable balls which look a little like eyes

I wouldn’t say that Bruce Asbestos’ OK! Cherub! inflatable sculptures are iconic, but they’ve undoubtedly been successful. Despite not having the most auspicious of starts (who could have predicted that they’d open during the most intense storms we’ve had in years?) they’ve been an instant hit – at least it seems so judging by how much they’ve appeared on my Instagram feed.

They’re just enormously fun, aren’t they? Even sorting out my photos for this post has made me smile. This is all I hoped for, to be honest. World events have given me a tough time emotionally lately, on top of which I’ve been run down with a cold and just felt rubbish all week. I wanted something to distract me for a few minutes, and these were it.

I feel like I’m meant to talk about what these actually are and represent, but instead I’ll just say that you can read about it all here on the Bluecoat’s website if you like. I can’t say that I saw the frogspawn as this: in pairs and in groups, it read to me more like eyeballs. But I like finding out that they’re called Community, and for all I’ve called them a “distraction” I think that they succeed anyway in creating a sense of connection. As in, my reading of them as eyes goes like this: I stare at them, they stare back – there’s a moment. But there’s only so profound such a moment can be when your opposite number is a large, cartoon-ish inflatable. It’s a moment to smile, rather than be sincere.

A group of four large inflatable balls looking like eyes, or frogspawn, as mstly green but with a white circle with a black smaller circle in the centre

This fun feels deliberate, but not overthought. There’s no doubt this is art as well as public spectacle – and a world where we all love to share things on Instagram, there’s a line between things which are simply made for this purpose and things which happen to fulfil it. I feel that OK! Cherub! falls into the latter category, that it would exist in this way even if it weren’t there to be photographed. suppose this is in part what I mean by “ambitious creativity” – that it knows what it’s doing, but doesn’t feel the need to take itself seriously doing it.

A lot of public art is commissioned by councils and housebuilders who aren’t always particularly invested in what art has the potential for. Instead they’re often conservative about what they expect public opinion will be when it comes to how money is spent. This is neither intended as a tourist attraction, a piece of placemaking or any kind of sincere statement. It’s a temporary installation by an art gallery. As such it showcases their trust in what artists do, in a way where a wide and perhaps unsuspecting audience can enjoy it. It won’t be here forever – even on my visit, a deflated “body bubble” of the worm ‘Rest’ is an unintended reminder of its temporary nature. Lord knows the world has been a heavy, emotionally draining place this week: a few minutes (and this is all you need for a visit) to be made to smile by and pose for selfies is fun. And fun can be enough.

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