Researcher Blog by PhD Candidate Tim Machin: A Grand Experiment in the Accumulative Production of Cultural and Civic Meaning

About the author

Tim Machin is the Gallery Manager for the Sheffield Institute of Arts. He is also a doctoral student in C3RI, researching the impact and possibilities of the Park Hill sculpture garden, in partnership with S1 Artspace. He is supervised by Dr Becky Shaw and Andrew Sneddon.

Here Tim reflects on the distinctive Park Hill development and its cultural impact in Sheffield and beyond. He also discusses his recent study visit to Germany to see the Skulptur Projekte Münster.

When we think of sculpture in cities (or when I do, anyway) it’s those cities where sculpture somehow defines the city that come to mind immediately. Think of the Statue of Liberty, the Angel of the North, David, or the Little Mermaid. These are artworks which do far more than embody the intentions of their creators – they are landmarks, symbols, meeting places, shorthand.

In Sheffield (which has no distinctive figurative monument) maybe Park Hill could be this monument. From aristocratic deer park above proto-industrial Sheffield, through to 1930s Peaky Blinders style ‘Little Chicago’ to Public-Private-Partnership Northern Powerhouse regeneration scheme via (of course) utopian ‘Streets in the Sky’ and notorious Threads dystopia. This place, ‘Sky Edge’ stands in, somehow, for Sheffield.

My PhD research is into the sculpture garden that is being established by S1 Artspace at Park Hill. Over the last few years there seems to have been something of an explosion in the numbers of Sculpture Parks around the world (at some point I’ll try and put some numbers together around this – but Wikipedia lists hundreds). At the same time, no urban art festival with any pretention to importance can now avoid commissioning at least one temporary, site-specific, public-realm sculptural commission. In the global competition for inward investment, these place-making opportunities are increasingly commodified driving city-brand development and gentrification hand-in-glove with the reshaping of our cities with emerging new forms of private/public space and residential tenures.

Locating a space for temporary open air exhibitions of sculpture at Park Hill seems like the politically charged overlap in an imaginary Venn diagram of these phenomena.

Park Hill also happens to be somewhere people live. Over the next few years, I’m going to be making a body of work – experiments and propositions – which test how a Sculpture Garden here might function, and what it might tell us about how art works begin to create meaning in places. I’ve already made a study visit to the Granddaddy of urban sculpture festivals – the decennial Skulptur Projekte Münster.

Here (since 1977) leading artists have made sculpture in response to this picturesque (but rebuilt Post-War) West German city. Works have been made in new places (last year Pierre Huyghe’s transformation of the redundant ice-rink was jaw-dropping) and in the same places (the Rathaus, the ‘Promenade’ along the former city walls, the lake shore). Some works relate to historic features or monuments in the city. Sometimes works have been left over, self consciously part of the city’s permanent collection, some in storage, some like a graffitoed Claes Oldenberg, or overgrown Donald Judd, part of Münsterlanders’ everyday lives.

Writing of the Skulptur Projekte, John Knight notes that it is “a grand experiment in the accumulative production of cultural and civic meaning”[i], a concerted attempt to understand the way in which art in the public realm, permanent or temporary, seeks over time, to influence and direct our experience of place. The prism of the sculpture garden at Park Hill is the tool to look at these here – and examine the very real impact that public realm art works and sculpture gardens have on place, and on everyday life, not just in terms of them as tools for the improvement or promotion of our cities, but in the way the temporary, imagined and unbuilt help us imagine other futures for our places.

[i] Knight, J (2017) ‘A Wrinkle Along the Skin’ in Skulptur Projekte Münster [Exhibition Catalogue]. Münster: Skulptur Projekte Münster, 2017, p217.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of SHU, C3RI or the C3RI Impact Blog.