Public ‘Art’ in Harrogate

I was inspired and intrigued to hear from a regular reader a week or so ago (in response to a post I had written) about a public art initiative by Harrogate Town Council.

It seemed the Council had provided a large frame around a bench for visitors to sit and pose on, and photograph as a souvenir of Harrogate. I felt compelled to check this out as soon as I could: since I perceive the world around me as a series of framed views, I couldn’t wait to see a real life-size frame in a public place.

In the intervening week or so, I managed to forget all about it, so it was with complete surprise that I stumbled upon the frame this morning in the course of an early morning dash to the town to secure some house paint unobtainable in Leeds.

A ten mile early morning drive to get paint was not such a hardship if it meant I could grab a coffee at Betty’s, and that was how I came to see the frame. I was walking back to the car and suddenly saw a large cross section of wood with two posts standing rather oddly in front of a flower bed. Rather puzzled, I circled round to the other side, and only then realised what it was. No one was occupying the bench at that godforsaken hour, so I was free to play there all by myself.

I grabbed my phone and started framing the frame from all angles and distances. Nothing worked to my satisfaction. I couldn’t make it look ‘right’ (whatever ‘right’ I was seeking). If I moved in close one way, half the space was occupied by two parked cars. If I swung around in the other direction I had the sun streaming into the lens and an over-strong contre-jour effect. There was a feeling of the bench and the foliage crowding in a bit too much on the frame itself.

It seems churlish to criticise a fun initiative which I’m sure has provided a great deal of amusement. But in the light of the discussions a few days ago on public art as part of East Street Arts’ Under The Paving Stones festival, it struck me that something of an opportunity had been lost here. Frames are powerful metaphors, and shouldn’t be lightly cast around.

For a start, an open air frame for me demands space with more potential for ambiguity and illusion. And would it have been so much more money and effort, for example, to have constructed it out of a beautiful timber so it avoided looking like a cut-out from the back of a cereal packet? To have given more thought to the frame design so it harmonized with the surroundings? To have thought a bit more about the placement and what would actually be viewed through it?

It’s a lovely idea, but I think in many ways it could have been so much more.

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