By Martin Macdonald
A centre of finance rather than an arts hub, the Square Mile is a part of London I rarely visit. Defying the economic downturn, new skyscrapers accommodating global financial institutions continue to pop up in the area. Last week however, Sculpture in the City 2013, an exhibition of public sculptures by internationally renowned artists provided me with a reason to drop by the capital’s money-pumping heart. In its third iteration, the yearlong show held from 20 June is a mixed bag: the financial district itself helps add new meanings to the artworks, making some engaging and ironic, whilst others remain decorative or simply boring.

Robert Indiana's LOVE in the Square Mile

On exiting Bank station, I headed to 99 Bishopsgate, where Robert Indiana’s LOVE (1966-1999) greets passersby. The red and blue aluminium letters spelling out the word “LOVE” inject a sense of joy into an otherwise dull corner. Despite having come across several versions of the artwork, I still find it impossible to dislike it. Flooding the market, many LOVE sculptures fail to sell at auction. In this manner, the piece draws parallelisms with the worlds of finance and art auctions where speculation runs rampant. Although this particular piece is not for sale - not as part of the exhibition anyway - love as a commodity therefore becomes an interesting concept in an area of London where money talks.

Jake and DInos Chapman's three works The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, 2007
Jake and DInos Chapman's sculpture outside "The Gherkin"

My next stop, 30 St Mary Axe is commonly known as “The Gherkin”. Standing just outside the phallic edifice and seemingly inspired by Richard Serra’s large-scale metal works rather than by Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (all from 2007) do not go unnoticed. The corten steel dinosaurs’ simple shapes so reminiscent of children’s drawings bring a touch of humour to this prime location. Observing the works, I could not help but wonder whether they allude to the financial sector's volatility, greed and power.

Ryan Gander, More Really Shiny Things that Don't Mean Anything, 2011

(detail) More Really Shiny Things that Don't Mean Anything

Across the road, on Undershaft, Ryan Gander’s More Really Shiny Things that Don’t Mean Anything (2011) is a large globe-like structure on a plinth. The work may appear “significant” but it is in fact made up of thousands of silver-coloured metallic objects that hold no real function. At first glance the individual bits look like door knobs, taps and pots but they are neither. The work’s bubble shape and “artifice” can therefore be seen as a metaphor for neoliberal economies that encourage speculative electronic transactions based on money that doesn’t really exist – a world of deregulated, artificially inflated economies.

(left) Keith Coventry, Mare Street, E8, 2009 (right) Keith Coventry, Bench, 1996

Just outside the relatively small Hiscox insurance building, stand two subtle works by Keith Coventry. Bench (1996), a bronze cast iron frame of a park bench rises from a concrete platform. It cuts a strange, almost emaciated form and has no function because unlike normal benches, it provides nothing to sit on. Given that benches are places for rest and contemplation, as a “seatless” bench, the work becomes a symbol of social decay and instability. 
In conversation with it stands Mare Street, E8 (2009) a thin black tree stump bronze cast. The narrow sculpture can be viewed as a symbol of city living whereby trees have been removed in order to make way for pavements and new buildings. In the context of the Square Mile, the question arises: do these two pieces also allude to the notion that ordinary citizens are being let down by politicians and financial institutions looking out for their own interests?

Richard Wentworth, Twenty-Four Hour Flag, 1992

In the form of four kitchen chairs, Richard Wentworth’s Twenty-Four Hour Flag (1992) balances itself on an edge atop the Hiscox building. However, unlike flags that move in the wind, these chairs are static and rather dull. Large trees nearby and construction cranes distract the viewer, making it highly unlikely that many people will spot the work. Ultimately, Wenworth’s piece seems like a missed opportunity to connect with the Square Mile’s skyline.

Shirazeh Houshiary, String Quartet, 2011

Another bland piece can be found in a square down the road. Comprising five spiralling stainless steel ribbons that appear to unravel from the ground below, Shirazeh Houshiary’s String Quartet (2011) looks rather “corporate”. With its delicate limbs dancing in unison, the piece can therefore be seen as a PR stunt for the financial sector. Yet, no matter how much “spin” is “spun”, most people are aware that social equality is not one of the financial sector’s priorities, making the rhythmic harmony of the piece rather cynical.

Antony Gormley, Parallel Field, 1990

(detail) Antony Gormley's Parallel Field

On the pavement just above stands Antony Gormley’s Parallel Field (1990), two cast iron figures, which despite the distance between them, look somewhat connected. As City employees walk on their way to work, they must dodge rather than interact with Gormley’s leaning human-like sculptures. In this manner, Parallel Field alludes to the disconnect between City workers and their surroundings – a rush to make money taking precedence above all else. It is rather telling that in the time I was observing the works, no-one else seemed to take any notice of them.

Robert Indiana's ONE THROUGH ZER0 (THE TEN NUMBERS) in the Square Mile

Robert Indiana's ONE THROUGH ZER0 (THE TEN NUMBERS) in the Square Mile

The last piece however, Robert Indiana’s ONE THROUGH ZERO (THE TEN NUMBERS) (1980 - 2001) makes a good match with the Square Mile. Placed between the Norman Foster designed Lime Street building and the Richard Rogers designed Lloyd’s building, the colourful metal numbers are what the world of finance is all about – counting, money, profit.
Having reached the end of my cultural escapade in London’s financial centre, I felt that Sculpture in the City provides food for thought. Like the Square Mile itself, it is a mix of brains, brawn and utter nonsense. I left the area wanting to return, not particularly to see the sculptures or mingle with the conservative looking City workers but to observe the architecture once again.

buildings in the Square Mile