How Tony Cragg led me to the Golden Shit

If you’ve strolled down Exhibition Road lately you will likely have noticed the series of strange vertical forms rising up like alien beings from the uniformity of the newly landscaped area. Tony Cragg’s sculptural series for the London 2012 Festival are particularly intriguing if, like me, you happen to just spot them on passing. The first form caught my eye at about a quarter of the way down the hill, with the Serpentine Pavilion still fresh in my mind. Throwing off in my direction sharp beams of the late summer sun from its silken metal, it appeared at once from post-modern camouflage to stick out like a sore thumb. Once seen, I couldn’t stop looking. There seems to be some human fascination with this type of form, reminiscent of flowing liquid and molten metal. A slideshow of related scenes from various films clicked instantaneously through my memory: T-1000 in Terminator 2, Water Tentacles in The Abyss, the playful material in Flubber and the time travel liquid tubes in Donnie Darko – a strange mix, but all in some way reference our preoccupation with this malleable, elongated form.

Ambling further down the now part-pedestrianised famous road, I continued to muse upon the possible origins of this fascination when I came suddenly face to face with a different, but undoubtedly related object. This brushed bronze incarnation is certainly less flashy, seeming to reference the traditional museum history of the area, as opposed to its mate, firmly rooted in modernism. Bringing to mind the human element rather than sci-fi film history, its top section resembles two large sculptural carved heads, almost African in style. It is imposing; powerful and dramatic.

A few more steps down the hill and we meet work number three. By now I realise there is more to come, but how many remains a mystery. Retaining the element of the vertical lift, it propels skywards, as if reaching to an invisible hand. Through perforated metal it takes a pear shape as its base form, discarding the previous undulatory style and instead projecting arching limbs. Like an alien dancer the piece is infused with movement, your eye drawn back and forth; darting through material and void, along horizontal and then vertical contours.

Piece four returns to form. Again in brushed bronze but as a decidedly more abstract structure, it embodies the rippling curves but is a wall rather than a tower; instead of leading you invitingly upwards, it blocks the way with an element of menace. In the centre sits a small void, a peephole through to what lies behind, as though mocking your instinctive desire to see beyond it. The edges, suggesting a darker element, often finish in vicious points rather than continuing the flowing lines, perpetuating the sense of sharp and impenetrable.

I move on. The fifth and final work is reminiscent of Damien Hirst, the presentation of the pinnacle of adoration. Sparkling in gold finish and immense in mass, it sits adjacent to where Exhibition Road crosses Cromwell. A point of high foot traffic, where the sculpture’s relative perceived importance is proven by the surrounding tourist throng. Ironically, rather than dazzling me, it reminded me instantly of excrement – Gary Hume’s The Shit flashed into my memory, similar in form but here swathed with gold.

Gary Hume – The Shit, 2009

Perhaps Cragg intended this interpretation, a comment on our money-obsessed society? Maybe we are meant to be unsettled by towering shiny stainless steel and bronze shapes then finally, just as we get used to these strange beings, we see one clad in that very thing we worship above all else. Gold. Whether it is a shit or not, it’s still gold. A valuable gold shit. Suddenly these works spoke to me about public delusion and political misinformation. Corporate robbery dressed up as benevolence, slavery masquerading as philanthropy. In the midst of the tourist crowd, clamouring for the gift shops, I can’t help thinking that all that glitters may not be gold…

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