- Royal Pavilion
- South East England
Quickly outlining the background to, and summarising the content for, Jonathan Gilhooly’s Empyrean Speculum – I personally had the privilege of cooperating in this – which took place in Brighton’s Pavilion Gardens adjacent to another work, Sky Mirror by artist Anish Kapoor:
1) Anish Kapoor has been invited as Guest Artistic Director for the annual Brighton Festival.
2) Regardless of the poignancy of Anish Kapoor’s significant installation (a concave stainless steel mirror, maybe 2.3m in diameter, facing at an angle upwards) on one of the gardens at the famous Royal Pavilion, anyone with eyes would be struck firstly by the fact that, around it there currently exists an active and highly visible security mechanism.
3) Security had been employed because of Kapoor’s own instructions. Letters from Brighton & Hove City Council provided to each of the guards stationed there state that Mr. Kapoor does not want people on the grass in Pavilion Gardens.
4) A complicating factor is that even though the gardens may not be public property they are seen in that way by locals and passers through.
5) The value of Sky Mirror is cited as the reason protection is required: apparently it is worth £1.3million.
6) On the sunny Saturday in question the other gardens were packed with visitors, families, festival goers and locals; many resting on the grass around the Pavilion. Presumably as a result of this, to allow more space (and prevent possible unrest) the cordon was reduced and brought closer to Kapoor’s sculpture.
7) Jon Gilhooly’s response, developed in the days before, was to place a tiny version of Sky Mirror, 23cm in diameter, on the grass near the giant piece just outside their makeshift barrier, to position a miniature fence around this, and to employ me, in the typical bright yellow vest of security staff, to guard the art and request that passers by do not step inside the boundary. He called the piece Empyrean Speculum.
8) The whole process would be performed for one hour.
Within minutes people began gathering around Empyrean Speculum, asking questions of the artist, taking with them when they left a piece of text, and surprisingly, generally respecting Gilhooly’s work and set of invented rules.
Children were less inclined to obey these laws but, reassuringly, this was the case with the high value model too: a number of small hand-prints were apparent on Sky Mirror even from a distance. At any rate, within a short space of time a polite approach on our part won these children over so that they themselves played a role in protecting the mini-work.
Adults and children alike appeared intrigued by what was being done and to a greater degree than with Kapoor’s work. Clearly Empyrean Speculum was not seen as a mere prank or joke; this was evident from the intense discussions as well as continuous Q&A type engagement with the artist. Accidently some educational value materialised as children (and worryingly, occasionally adults too) speculated as to why they could see themselves upside down in the disk. Other conversations considered whether at some specified distance, corresponding to the ‘focal length’, one might experience concentrated heat and analogously whether flying birds, if their trajectory met this point in relation to Kapoor’s Sky Mirror, ran the risk of being instantly burnt to a crisp.
I played my part as security guard with earnestness, not in the sense of acting-out, but because genuinely I saw no reason why, as a practicing artist and someone who has worked hard to engage with these aspects of cultural activity, Gilhooly’s piece should not be treated as seriously as Kapoor’s in this situation. When people asked about the money-value of Empyrean Speculum we gave them the figure of £1.30, exactly one millionth of the stated value of Sky Mirror. In the current economic climate it would appear that more of us are open to judging outside of monetary terms. The response to Empyrean Speculum on 2nd May certainly suggests so although at one point a child offered to buy the work which placed Jonathan Gilhooly in a difficult position. In reality the work, like so much else in the world currently, is not for sale.
As a result of mysterious complaints eventually Royal Pavilion security staff arrived to break up the activity. At this point a substantial crowd stood in concentric circles around the mini-fence (which in total occupied an area of about 40cm in diameter) and acted vociferously to defend the work. Jonathan Gilhooly himself made valid points questioning what the differences were, in terms of acceptability, with others occupying the gardens at the time, with their bags, toys, and paraphernalia. A well known public–art sculptor who happened to be passing jumped to Jonathan’s defence suggesting that the work was useful and represented an homage to Kapoor’s original. As the row escalated five or six others let their opposition to potential heavy handed policing be known. For my part I appealed on the basis that if the piece were removed I would be out of a job.
As the arguments continued threats were withdrawn and a compromise reached: we agreed to move the installation a few meters away for the remainder of the hour. Needless to say the request for assistance in transporting the structure was met with silence.
From that point on I was permitted to continue with my role, the piece remained the focus of various positive attentions and intelligent conversations. Apart from the fact that, when requested as peers, the experienced security guards protecting Kapoor’s mirror gruffly refused to advise me as to how to do my job better, the atmosphere remained friendly.
Ironically ‘the public’ had intervened to defend the mechanism around the physically smaller art work but appeared hostile to the security around Kapoor’s giant artefact. To make a copy or create a version based on something else can be intended to cause offense or intended as compliment. Likewise, no matter what these objectives are, observers can read as accolade or insult, or oddly as both. This is what the activity Empyrean Speculum revealed.
A nowadays overlooked facet of ‘Englishness’, the characteristic which opposes the denial of either liberal or other hard-won freedoms such as free speech’, notions of justice, the ‘right to roam’ was apparent on May 2nd too. More ominously noticeable was the ease with which a game can be played, through the evocation of natural sympathy with the underdog say, in order to generate support for one set of imposed laws against another. The wearing of a £5 bright yellow vest, even with the word INSECURITY printed on the back, gives a person authority over others. Which begins to sound cynical: for the most part spectators recognised the harmlessness of our action (for them at least).
The question of mirrors and their use has not been dealt with here. Is it a ‘cop-out’ for artists to employ them? As a rule of thumb mirrors are a lazy way to impress? Read Gilhooly’s text for Empyrean Speculum, which starts with the statement “Mirrors are everywhere!”, for more information as well as mockery around this subject. However what’s written here is not a critique at all of Kapoor’s work in Pavilion Gardens. In fact, not that this matters to Anish Kapoor, both Jonathan Gilhooly and I agreed that we didn’t necessarily or conclusively dislike Sky Mirror. Naturally, at a time when houses are being repossessed and redundancies made in an atmosphere of financial fear, palpable admiration (by the local Council and the private companies they hire) for such supposed money-value incites an antagonistic response. As it happens also, because of a certain lack of research into how the gardens are used, and because of the security approach, it is not possible to properly see Sky Mirror or do it justice yet.