Making memorials: time to forget polar oppositions
A day before Tessa Jowell made her decision to choose for the nation Gustafson Porter's Diana memorial, I received a telephone call. It was from a diligent BBC TV reporter, attempting to get in place some commentators for her report the following day. Could I, she asked, perhaps talk about the design? Difficult, I said.We've seen the Future Systems (which, strangely, rarely gets a mention) and Anish Kapoor 'Dome'proposal, but nothing yet of the socalled 'favourite'. Well, then, could I talk about what a shame it is that the 'traditional', rather than the modern, was getting the nod? That's tricky too, I replied, for much the same reason: we haven't seen it yet. A little more exasperated now. How about what a shame it was that a Brit was likely to be left on the sidelines, with a foreigner taking centre stage? More similar calls followed from radio and TV, but we chose not to get involved in what became something of a rerun of the 'waste of money'or 'but is it art?'pieces you see just after the Turner or A N Other Prize.
Leaving aside the obvious flaws in most of these attempted lines of enquiry (such as the fact that Neil Porter of Gustafson Porter is a Brit and Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems is not, or even that Gustafson's work is essentially Modernist), there is at work here a depressing element of either/or thinking. Things are black or white, chalk and cheese, flipsides of a single coin. Is this a peculiarly British tradition? A common mindset among the populace, or just the media? Whichever, it is problematic that many good proposals are cast into shadow by their rivals, pigeon-holed and attacked to promote the winner by comparison.
Gustafson and Porter must be wishing they had never entered such a contest for the flak their proposal has garnered. In the public's mind's eye was the traditional image of a fountain, which was not delivered. The jury process leading to the decision was a farce - though compounded by the death of ninth judge David Sylvester. And it took too long, certainly. But the Diana decision was also hampered by a lack of visual material for the public to go on. And by a British refusal to think beyond binary oppositions.