It is a dreary November night as I go to explore Switch, a major venture in temporary public art that has taken over nine empty shop fronts in Bangor town centre. Its theme is ‘the scale of things’. I am confounded by howling wind, and rising measurements on the Beaufort Scale. Herein lies part of the challenge for public art of this kind: how do you draw people in, and then stop them in their tracks in an otherwise hostile environment?
Switch has never been short of ambition. Run by artists Triona Ryan and Harald Turek, it originated in Nenagh, County Tipperary, in 2007. That sounds very parochial. Not so: they invited international entries and in that first year secured 60, a figure that has risen to more than 160 this year, and the nine artists now featured are from far flung shores.
The initiative has clearly found its moment as recession bites, when shop fronts fall empty and in turn blight those that remain. Switch has the capacity to turn vacant premises into points of attraction. A full shop window certainly fulfils one of the demands of ‘scale’, and back projection of images onto windows coated with buttermilk (with its opaque qualities) gives effective delivery.
I start in Market Street, and am confronted by an outsize busker playing away in silence. This is Martijn Kuijten’s ‘A Song to Dylan’. I am not sure that he can quite match the appeal of the surrounding Luxury Beauty Spa, which offers to ‘Transform Your Body’ and ‘Know Yourself’. A little boy stops dead and asks his mother, ‘Is that a big television?’. His mother replies, ‘A very big one’.
Evidently Main Street still prospers because it is a ten minute walk to the next installation at the very foot of the street. Scale certainly makes its mark here in Holger Mohaupt’s ‘Cows’. These are cows closer up than you care to be: staring eyes, teeth, hooves, the ring in the nose of a bull, forests of hair. There are no pedestrians but passing motorists and their passengers look startled.
‘Chips Ahoy’ on the corner of High Street features a container ship which seems to me to be in a frozen sea. I subsequently learn that it is in the Bosphorus. No matter, nothing much happens to it. There is more action round the corner in the upper part of High Street, home to six of the nine installations. Two strike me in particular.
Robert Ladislas Derr’s ‘Man in Relation to Men’ (above) features a growing array of male action figures, a splendidly stereotypical assembly of mainly plastic figures including gunmen, wrestlers, spacemen, soldiers and other authority figures. Crucially a large hand continues to add additional figures who begin to assume the proportions of a small army threatening to break out of the window in the direction of the viewer. A middle-aged man in the street stops and is suitably transfixed.
By contrast Wolfgang Lehrner’s ‘Trident’ (below) appears at first sight to be merely an intriguing still photograph of a statue of Neptune with his trident, and in the background, on high banked seating, a man reading a newspaper. Then pigeons hop into sight and the man moves. You wait to see what happens next, and even if that is all there is to it, you are hooked.
Both work because they demand attention in their very different ways, though ‘Man in Relation to Men’ is the more compelling of the two. Elsewhere there are certainly attractive images or clever ideas which don’t quite deliver.
Jeff Langille’s ‘Waterfall’ is, on the face of it, just that, and who does not like looking at waterfalls? It takes 26 minutes to reach the ‘banal’ juxtaposition of the public viewing platform. Few will wait to get the point. Thomas Horak’s ‘Glowing Pear’ features a tree with a crop of electric light bulbs, and all sorts of other cunning features, but the difficulty is that, without catalogue in hand, these are less than evident.
The same is true of a last minute addition in the window next to ‘Waterfall’. It appears to involve the abstract movement of bits of paper – even maps. It is only because I accidentally meet the organisers on the otherwise deserted street that I can now reveal that it features paper boats made out of a torn up A to Z being carried to the beach in a plastic bag!
The artists are still full of enthusiasm for the venture. They certainly offer a welcome new experience on the wintry streets of Bangor, and all praise to North Down Borough Council for bringing Switch to Northern Ireland . To enjoy it, hurry. As befits temporary installation, all comes to an end on 21 November.