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Vienna, the archbishop and the role of statues in the city

WILL ALSOP

Although Vienna is not large - and the tourist heart is tiny - it is possible to get lost.

Once you step off the main shopping streets and leave Stefansplatz, the uniformity of much of the architecture gives the stranger few clues as to where they are. There are some new buildings, but few gaps in the fabric that allow for oddity and therefore punctuation.

What does emerge, however, is a plethora of monuments and statues that suffice as navigation aids. If you venture to the edge of the inner city you might choose to walk around the Ring. This is a circle with a missing arc that is defined by the Donnau canal.

Circles are always difficult. Canberra is dire to wander around - circles of suburbia masquerading as a city. Terminal one at Charles De Gaulle Airport is equally perplexing.

The Dome was not easy for the same reason.

The role of the statuary on the Ring is vital as Schubert and Goethe gaze upon your progress and wave you off in, you hope, the right direction. Of course, even though the city gave me Austrian citizenship, there are many statues of people who have no meaning to me whatsoever. Very soon you realise there are no figurative works of anyone since about 1900. But why?

This is true not only of Vienna, but almost any other city. I would be interested to hear from anyone that can give me chapter and verse on the whereabouts of monuments that celebrate someone after, say,1920.

In Moscow a huge work commemorates Yuri Gagarin, although I am not sure whether the figure is Gagarin himself because the style owes more than a little to the Futurists.

The many statues of Lenin in Moscow have now been removed - being celebrated in bronze or marble is no assurance of immortality. A large bronze colossus of Archbishop Makarios, who died in 1977, was put up in Nicosia in the early 1990s outside the current archbishop's residence. On a live TV debate in Cyprus, I was invited to pass comment on its artistic merit. Only myself and the artist spoke in favour of the work against 17 who were vehemently against. I had left the archbishop at home, sipping whisky, watching TV. As the debate rumbled on I realised that what they really did not like was the subject matter. Once I mentioned this the debate was stopped and I left to see the archbishop. I confessed that I did not know whether I had helped and that I was worried the opposition had the power to remove the work. The archbishop smiled and said: 'First, at least they know there is another point of view and, second, they would find it difficult to remove the work as I have had it filled with concrete.'

In an age of democracy it is difficult to agree who our heroes are. I would maintain that the rise of film and photography began to negate the need to reproduce likenesses of well-known figures in such a frozen manner.

Celluloid became the new marble.

Today, no artists of repute make figurative works, let alone portraits of the infamous. Do such works simply cater to a public need for nostalgia? Nostalgia can wear pretty thin, of course, when large statues commemorate people who are forgotten.

Trafalgar Square contains the empty plinth, which gave rise to the series of commissioned art works to fill it. I think the resultant refreshing of the plinth on a regular basis is wonderful and truly reflects a relationship between public space and public art. To me the city should be adorned with empty plinths containing temporary art works. It refreshes the city and the people - it might even mean we would not have to crowd into Tate Modern any more.

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