The New Easterhouse Mosaic
According to Anthony Caro in the Department for the Environment’s handbook Art for Architecture, an artwork that fails to deal with site and context is ‘plop sculpture’ (1). Plop sculpture appears from nowhere and the communities that have had it dumped on them are supposed to embrace their new local landmark. Glasgow has suffered its fair share of plop sculpture and as a post-industrial city, perhaps, a far greater amount of dismal ‘plopitecture’. One would be hard to pressed however to find something more apposite to Easterhouse’s lacklustre housing of the eighties than the original Easterhouse Mosaic. Alan Kane, who had been working with a Youth Opportunities scheme in the area since 1980, had started to make mosaic panels in a local school. The reaction to the first completed parts of the wall being positive, the local community, under the auspices of the Easterhouse Festival Committee, put out a job description for a supervisor on a mosaic. Brian Kelly, Tommy Lydon, Willie Hamilton and George Massey applied individually but indicated that it was a job for more than one artist. Sensibly they were all offered the job, with the addition of Allan Kane (2). Taking three years from inception to completion, the mosaic was inaugurated in June 1984 (3).
The mosaic’s fame spread after it was completed, becoming part of the discourse surrounding community art practice. Alongside David Harding’s work as Glenrothes ‘town artist’ and the startlingly trailblazing work done by the Craigmillar Festival Committee in Edinburgh, evoked so effectively in Helen Crummy’s book Let The People Sing (5), it was an exemplar for commissioning art in an urban context. Harding even recalls it being discussed at Towards A People’s Art, a conference in Chicago (4). The project was originally intended to be a catalyst for even wider ranging environmental improvements. That these ambitions were never realised says much about socially divisive policymaking in Britain in the 1980s. While a great deal of the housing remains, The Easterhouse mosaic wall has since been ‘decommissioned’, to use the appropriate euphemism. The remaining fragments currently reside in polystyrene lined trays in a former school building site now annexed to a local housing association. Those who worked on it probably didn’t imagine that they would be candidates for admission into an art equivalent of architecture’s exclusive ‘rubble club’ today.
Working alongside the now quasi-archaeological remains of the original mosaic, Alex Frost has managed to integrate the deep-rooted histories associated with it without compromising his own concepts. His activity in making The New Easterhouse Mosaic connects his practice with the collective ‘architectural memory’ of the area, situating it intellectually and geographically. The original mosaic included a profile head in the form of a phrenology chart (at a time when the Prime Minister was a suitable candidate for having her head examined) as well as everything from benefit cards to Karl Marx in a toga. Profile heads in various pastel shades, derived from photographs of people visiting The Bridge (6), constitute the core imagery of Frost’s work. They are emblems of a community and emblematic of the success of The Bridge in playing a role in its life. At the same time the identities of the profiles, and perhaps the potential linguistic play on the word ‘profile’, are examples of the guessing games that Frost likes to spin around his work.
Frost’s use of what now seems the stubbornly unfashionable medium of mosaic, allows for rhetorical possibilities and a ‘doublement’ both pictorially and textually. His is an image that announces its ‘constructedness’ by playfully exposing its compositional artifice. The large shattered tile pieces serve to amplify the activity of mosaic manufacture and its histories rather than simply suggesting the illusion of dimensionality. Scattered over the heads are jet cut tiles of non-numerical and non-alphabetical symbols. It connects to the idea of a sign or a billboard, though in this case a sign whose characters have slipped and scattered. It’s a deliberately destabilising combination of imagery that connects with what Frost calls the original mosaic’s ‘accidental postmodernism’ (7) but with a crucial difference, its dialectical interplay between creation and critique is something that can be part of how ‘public art’ might evolve. The very open-endedness of the possible interpretations that this engenders can make contact with our time in ways that the original work might not.
Framing his work further are his borrowings from conservation methods. He has devised a way to record Easterhouse’s numerous mosaics by taking monochrome rubbings and pooling them for an exhibition at Platform. Found in widely contrasting locations in the locality, as well as exhibiting various models of authorship, levels of skill and scale, the paper versions of these works become part of another one of his engaging guessing games. They create a map of the creative surface of the area where partly recognisable emblems and texts emerge through the coloured crayon impressions.
Some of the largest rubbings are from the Stations of the Cross at St Clare’s church, Lochend. These smalti (8) mosaics were made in collaboration with The Glasgow School of Art, a role that is mirrored in the commissioning process of Frost’s new work. His job description as commissioned artist however, is a role he has chosen to consider as part of his response. By playing with what has become a community art vernacular, Frost’s work manages to quote ‘craft’ processes whilst preserving the complexity associated with his gallery-based practice. It is a practice defined by an enquiry in sculptural language and sculpture as language. These stylistic gearshifts and moments of authorial duplicity generate a pictorial language to look at and look at again. This act of looking or reading mirrors an analogy in the introduction to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ‘What you are looking at is a series of dried-ink marks on paper. But you have long ago learned to forget this and look upon them simply as words’ (9). The aspiration for Frost’s mosaic is that its pictorial language can begin to be unlocked by an act of forgetting. By laying the original mosaic to rest the new work can be seen as a part of Easterhouse’s narrative and a commentary on the public art tradition in Scotland. As Brian Kelly says, ‘you make a public art work and its value and success is measured by how little it belongs to you’ (10).
1. Petherbridge, D. ed. (1987) Art for Architecture. London: HMSO Publications. p.98
2. Kelly, B. Interviewed by: Brownrigg, J. (9th March 2012)
3. Petherbridge, D. ed. (1987) Art for Architecture. London: HMSO Publications. p.28
4. Harding, D. (1995) Memories and Vagaries: The Development of Social Art Practices in Scotland from the 60s to the 90s [Internet]. Available from < http://www.davidharding.net/?page_id=15 > [Accessed 1st March, 2012]
5. Crummy H. (1992) Let the People Sing. Craigmillar: Craigmillar Communiversity Press.
6. Platform is the arts centre at the heart of the award-winning Bridge complex. The Bridge also comprises John Wheatley College and Glasgow Life’s swimming pool and library.
7. Frost, A. Interviewed by: Peter, M. (7th March 2012)
8. Humby, R. [Internet]. Available from http://www.thejoyofshards.co.uk/glossary/smalti.shtml [Accessed 5th April, 2012]
9. Joyce, J. ( 1966) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Heinemann Books. p. xi
10. Kelly, B. Interviewed by: Brownrigg, J. (9th March 2012)