in Frieze | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

Art U Need: My Part in the Public Art Revolution

Bob and Roberta Smith (Black Dog Publishing, London, 2007)

in Frieze | 01 NOV 07

What’s in a name? Sometimes not much, although the pseudonym taken by London artist Patrick Brill – Bob and Roberta Smith – performs some deft semantic ju-jitsu on itself, signifying not only both genders but also everyman (or woman). Brill is close to the opposite of authoritative The New York Times critic Roberta Smith: he is an artist who has made a career of avoiding authority. The identity-forestalling name is a good clue to Smith’s public-arts practice: his aim is less to create than to facilitate. In recent projects Smith has organized a fair celebrating the shop owners in the streets around East End galleries (Shop Local, 2006) and erected a series of banners confronting the two-sided coin of gentrification and regeneration in the recently smartened-up town of Margate (Should I Stay or Should I Go? Dilemmas for Margate, 2006). The winsome, chatty Art U Need, written in diary form, tells the story of his being appointed by Commissions East, a London public arts agency, to curate five projects in the Thames estuary. Opening in February 2006 with a phone call from a lady with a ‘deep, authoritative voice’, the diary takes us through his scouting out the estuary area (soggy, full of council houses and one Bauhaus masterpiece), naming the five artists for the project (Lucy Harrison, Andrea Mason, Milika Muritu, Hayley Newman, Jane Wilbraham), other projects he worked on in the meantime and events in his life (mother falls ill, sister gets a promotion, he falls asleep drunk on the landing of his house). It sets up a rather picaresque journey with Smith as voyaging hero, navigating through the pitfalls of public art – the smirks of the commercial art world, the demands of the funding bodies, the apathy of the public the projects are meant to help – all in search of the perfect prize: art that ‘is going to give a voice to people who are usually told to shut up and take it’ (as he memorably tells a BBC Essex journalist, who cuts to a report about a missing dog).

In the topography of public art sketched out in Sculpture Projects Muenster this year we are miles away from the formal beauty of, say, Bruce Nauman, and in the allotments with Jeremy Deller, collaborating with pre-existing communities and becoming vulnerable to the same problems that beset Deller – the attempt to be both ‘one of the crowd’ and ‘giver of the voice’. Oddly enough, it is by retreating to the private ‘I’ that Art U Need (subtitled My Part in the Public Art Revolution) eloquently gives voice to these complexities, airing Smith’s own reactions to the problems posed by being a public artist who doesn’t believe in talking down to his public. This book is a simple account of one man’s part – a cheery, plainspoken history of what it’s like to make art for all.