‘Tastes can be fickle’: how did a giant modernist sculpture end up gathering moss in a Milton Keynes field? | Art

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‘Tastes can be fickle’: how did a giant modernist sculpture end up gathering moss in a Milton Keynes field? | Art

AAt the bottom of a field in Milton Keynes, a concrete mural has been broken down and covered with moss for the past 10 years. Unless it finds a new owner soon, the 34-ton sculpture will be taken away and smashed into rubble. Local art enthusiast Tim Skelton is on a mission to find it a loving home.

The current state of the mural, called Celestial, is a far cry from its triumphant debut in 1969. A young Scottish artist, Keith McCarter, was invited by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works to paint the designer of the BT Tower, Eric Bedford, to meet , to discuss the design of an artwork that would sit as part of the new headquarters for the Ordnance Survey (OS), the national mapping agency, in Southampton.

McCarter was prolific: you would have unknowingly walked past his work on your way to catch a train in Birmingham or Glasgow, drive down the M25, shop in Kent, or walk through Aldershot or London. Along with Anthony Holloway and William Mitchell, he designed many of the concrete walls, murals and patterns on buildings that shaped the aesthetics of post-war Britain. It was a period of optimism in British architecture. In the aftermath of World War II, the Labor government and idealistic designers set out to rebuild the UK’s damaged cities and public morale. Modernist buildings had to be egalitarian, and much thought was given to public space and art.

The mural for the OS office would be something special. The new site was large and housed areas for drawing, printing and storing large, flat maps. Britain was transforming, and every inch of its new neighbourhoods, town centers and motorways had to be documented. The site required an artwork that reflected the organization’s growing stature, and measuring 12.4m x 6.3m, McCarter’s gigantic sculpture achieved just that. Unlike his previous work, in which concrete murals were designed as part of a building’s structure, this piece had to stand alone. It would be erected between two buildings on a grass verge, to which workers would drive carts loaded with heavy maps.

The same year foundations were laid in the ground for the headquarters, man landed on the moon. When he designed the piece, McCarter says, he thought to himself, “If they’ve mapped terra firma, they must be able to map the heavens.”

“Back then there was a lot of aerial photography coming back from space probes,” he says. Images of the moon’s surface inspired the heavy, cratered texture of the mural. The only adjustment the government requested was for holes to be incorporated into the design to make sure workers could see any oncoming traffic.

Final adjustments are made to the polystyrene negative for Celestial. Photo: Graham McCarter

After the design had the go-ahead, McCarter carved a negative of the shapes and textures into blocks of polystyrene, assisted by his brother Graham and friend Mark Lang, who students at Guildford Art College. The negative formwork was placed in the wooden frames and concrete was poured into the form. Once the material had hardened, the wooden sides were pulled off and the final design was lifted with an overhead gantry crane before being transported to the site.

Upon its unveiling, the sculpture was widely praised. The Architects’ Journal said the mural was one of the “outstanding features” of the new site, along with the concrete domed roof over the staff restaurant building. The mural remained on site until 2010 when the operating system downsized and moved to a new site. As card manufacturing and storage were digitized, and printing was outsourced, there was no longer a need for large factory floors. The future has arrived, just not the one McCarter envisioned.

The OS never mapped the moon. The collective optimism of the 1960s turned into a new belief in the progression of the individual, rather than society. Concrete public art weathered and covered with moss and vines; some of them, including McCarter’s mural at Charing Cross in Glasgow, were painted over in bright colors to “cheer up” the grey; some were destroyed forever. McCarter began making sculptures in metal and receiving commissions from private developments. Reflecting on his career, he says: “Tastes come and go, and what might be popular one day won’t be the next. It can be very fickle.”

In 2010, the Public Arts Trust in Milton Keynes caught wind that the mural was at risk of destruction and sought to give it a new home, hence its temporary roost in a field. It is fitting that a new town organization, created in the same period of civic optimism, eventually saw the value in McCarter’s work.

But the mural wasn’t about finding a home in the city. “Politics came into it, and a few of the board members raised objections,” McCarter says. After 12 years of unsuccessful attempts to find a home for the work, the owner of the field has now made a polite request to move the mural on. In desperation a member of the Trust, Skelton, recently took to Twitter and asked if anyone wanted the mural. Free. He has been inundated with responses and is in talks with one organization, which he cannot yet reveal, about rehoming the sculpture.

A panel detail of Celestial;  the holes were added so workers could keep an eye out for carts carrying cards
A panel detail of Celestial; the holes were added so workers could keep an eye out for carts carrying cards. Photo: Keith McCarter

Unlike a painting, which can change hands with ease, finding a home for a large sculpture is not easy. This is not the first time that one has had trouble finding a taker. In Glasgow, a statue of Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has been covered with tarpaulin in a warehouse for the past decade because the local council believes it could be an obstacle to pedestrians if erected in the city’s West End.

Installation can also be a problem for Celestial. Two articulated trucks will transport it from its current home and, once in place, the concrete panels will have to sit on top of an in-situ wall. Stainless steel pins will be inserted through quick-setting cement-filled receiving pockets, much like how a carpenter might make a set of joints at right angles when making a set of drawers. It also wouldn’t hurt for the new owner to give the panels a blast wash to rid them of the accumulated moss.

Today, McCarter’s creative energy remains undiminished, although he has become a full-time caregiver to his wife, Brenda, a talented needlewoman. She recently passed away; therefore there is something alluring about the near-permanence of art made in concrete. It serves as a reminder that there was once a generation of men and women who thought that the future could be better and worked hard to realize their vision.

McCarter and Skelton hope the mural and their ideals will live on, wherever it ends up, reminding the next generation to shoot for the moon.

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