The great promenade show: Blackpool, UK (2002)

Public art commission program including artworks by Chris Knight, Tony Stallard, Bruce Williams, and Peter Freeman.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This article first appeared in Sculpture magazine, 21(3), pp. 20-1 in 2002.

The great promenade show, Blackpool

Sun, sea, sand, entertainment, sex, and sculpture. Strange bedfellows indeed, but this is what the Blackpool City Council and Manchester’s artist-led The Art Department have teamed up to deliver in a seaside art extravaganza dubbed “The Great Promenade Show.” With references to Blackpool’s colorful past and present, the organizers seem to have thought of everything. Sparkling rocks resemble glowing alien eggs, a rather suggestive work titled Desire sports menacing spikes, and, in May 2002, plans call for a giant mirror ball to inspire dancers—if England’s notorious lager louts don’t dismantle it first.

Situated 55 kilometers northwest of Manchester and facing the Irish Sea, the resort of Blackpool is billed as a family destination by day, with a zoo, aquarium, waxworks, roller coasters, and lots of kitschy shops. By night, it’s notorious for drag performances, UK-style drinking, and “dirty weekends.” As part of Blackpool’s image re-launching campaign, public art has become a key visitor attraction, with specially commissioned works distributed on the new two-kilometer-long South Shore promenade, which is built on sea defenses stretching away from the resort’s south side. Artists Liam Curtin and Wendy Jones and industrial designer Michael Trainor, directors of The Art Department, envision “an outdoor art gallery or a visual variety show, a program of ‘acts.’ Each one reflects an aspect of Blackpool’s diverse character, giving a new and creative attraction for Blackpool’s 11 million annual visitors.”

In 2000, artists were asked to submit proposals reflecting “Blackpoolness” and other criteria related to the site. The Blackpool Challenge Partnership, Blackpool Council, Lancashire Tourism Partnership, and the South Shore Hospitality Group invested £500,000 (about $725,000) toward the first phase consisting of six public works. Other designs have been short-listed for future installation.

The first work, the hyper-kinky Desire by Chris Knight, was installed on May 9, 2001. An imposing monolithic sculpture made of Cor-Ten steel slabs with stainless steel spikes, the piece refers to the underlying sexual tensions and frisson of a holiday in Blackpool. For Knight, “Desire is a large-scale sculptural representation of an ongoing theme that I have been exploring for a number of years— the seductive power of danger, the lure of the forbidden, and the contradiction that can be formed by an outwardly aggressive object. Is it attacking or protecting? Is it giving or taking? Passive or submissive?” The work also refers to Blackpool’s fetish scene.

Tony Stallard’s Frankenstein (2001) is a hermetically sealed chamber similar to a diver’s decompression chamber, bolted into the promenade’s concrete slab. A strange light emanates from its two portholes, as viewers peer inside to witness a bizarre experiment involving blue neon glass skeletons and the skull of a killer whale. The piece draws on Blackpool’s history of freak shows, which were active until World War II. According to Michael Trainor, “We short-listed this partly because it was the best reference to that part of Blackpool’s history without causing offense.”

Other works installed in 2001 include Bruce Williams’s Water Wings, which invokes beach activity with a curved panoramic panel of twisted steel, giving the effect of a detailed graphic image of a swimming child. Peter Freeman’s Glam Rocks responds to flashy Blackpool nightclubs and its beaches with a “family” of three giant pebbles, which contain a system of fiber optics that sparkle with changing colors.

Reaction to the new installations has been mixed. According to Trainor, there aren’t any tensions between The Art Department’s goals and the Blackpool re-marketing campaign. He adds, however, “If there is any conflict, it’s between us and some local residents. There was a campaign against Frankenstein because, for them, ‘it wasn’t art.’” Trainor also mentions a local radio station, which proposed that Desire be sold as scrap and the money used to fund the resort’s public toilets, considered the dirtiest in the U.K.

With four works installed, three more are on the way this spring. In addition to the world’s largest mirror ball by The Art Department, the new works will include the 15-meter-tall High Tide Organ designed by The Art Department with John Gooding. A musical manifestation of the sea, according to The Art Department, “Its rhythms will reflect directly the surges and swell of water at high tide.” Stephen Hurrel’s This is the Way the Wind Looks will use wind-generated turbines to illuminate a series of panels that interpret wind patterns. Nine other short-listed proposals are now in line, awaiting funding; these include works by Bruce McLean, David Mach, and Pop Artists Allen Jones and Peter Blake, which would be Blake’s first public artwork.

The press release issued by the Blackpool City Council is ambitious; the goal of these artworks is to transform the new South Shore promenade into “a spectacular new visitor attraction set to put Blackpool firmly on the international art map.” How firm and how international has yet to be determined, subject to additional funding to continue the “Show.”