This is the tale of Dragon’s Dance. It is a sculpture by Liliane Lijn sited at the landscaped entrance to a new Marks & Spencer shopping centre at Culverhouse Cross, Cardiff in Wales.
‘Senor, Senor, I can see that painted wagon,
I can smell the tail of the dragon.
Can’t stand the suspense anymore.
Can you tell me who to contact here, Senor?’
The genesis of this commission, its management, sponsoring and execution raise serious legal and policy issues relating to art in public places which all of us may benefit from exploring and debating.
Original Design Commission
In 1991 Artwork Wales initiated the project, causing M&S to offer to three artists the opportunity of submitting proposals for a site-specific piece, on a roundabout providing a level circular platform, near to the proposed new shopping centre at Culverhouse Cross; installation date would be March 1992; the budget was to be £30,000.
‘Dodecahedron’ by Liliane Lijn
Lijn’s proposal was chosen. It was for a sculpture 4500mm in height with a maximum radius of 2400mm from the centre: 12 vertical members whose heights would change in a mathematical progression corresponding to their increased radius. Each member would be tied at its apex to the next one, the 12 members forming a parabolic curve. From each member a vane of perforated stainless steel would project at a progressively changing angle. The vane would be made in 1000mm high sections with 100 mm spaces between each.
Development and Planning
Between November 1991 and February 1992, Lijn began detailed drawing, development, planning and costings. During this phase, Lijn was told for the first time that the proposed sculpture was subject to the Local Authority’s planning consent being given to the whole development and that traffic signage would have to be incorporated onto the roundabout which would have to be encircled by chevrons (about 2m high). The sculpture would be 4.5m high, and so it was necessary for a plinth to be incorporated in order to lift the sculpture above the chevrons.
At this stage, Lijn was also informed that the project was all subject to a signed contract. She was offered a standard ‘Blue Form’ by Bovis, the main contractors. This was wholly unsuitable for a project of this nature, being a standard document used by main contractors for sub-contracting small building works. There was no mention or suggestion of drawing up a public commission contract, custom-made for the sculpture project. In the event, Lijn elected to negotiate a contract directly with M&S, the Commissioner, who would be footing her bill.
Negotiations were protracted, and involved input from M&S’s project manager and Artwork Wales. Sticking points included: the costs of the foundations, of landscaping the site after installation, and of lighting the piece. Lijn elected to pay for the foundations and lighting; M&S to pay for the laying on of electricity and landscaping. By February 1992 a contract had not been signed.
Do not pass go
Suddenly, Lijn was told that the project was off. M&S wanted a new sculpture on a new site immediately in front of the new store, on a large raised area where there were three old oak trees. The reason for the change was that the original site was now found not to be level, and would cost M&S £3,000 to prepare. Undaunted, Lijn negotiated a new fee for a new design and a fee paid by M&S out of the original commission fee for work done by her to date.
New Design and Contract
Lijn created a new piece, which was accepted by M&S in June 1992, but which was followed by protracted negotiations over costs of preparing the new site. And the still outstanding issue of planning consent. By March 1993, a contract had been negotiated and signed with M&S. Artwork Wales had been very helpful in dealing with the paperwork.
‘Dragon’s Dance’ by Liliane Lijn
Between March and October 1994, Dragon’s Dance was made. It is 30 tubular curved sections connected to each other, forming a three dimensional web structure: 4m high and 3m long. The bronze surface would be patinated a deep blue green. It would weigh half a ton. It was installed by December 1994.
Stings in the tale
M&S failed to landscape the site for months. There was no plaque acknowledging Lijn’s authorship, the title of the piece, or date of its creation and installation (despite the contract requiring such things). There was no press opening or unveiling ceremony. Eventually landscaping did take place, but with wholly inappropriate annuals; there was no grassing and seeding. The site is unsightly. To date, there has been no acknowledgement by M&S of the existence of the work. Artwork Wales eventually installed a plaque at the site. Lijn is now given to understand that the only reason for M&S commissioning a piece at all was that ‘a work of art on site’ was needed to obtain planning consent for the overall development. This would go a long way to explain the lack of interest and concern or care that any artist commissioned in these circumstances would rightly expect. The commissioning of the work was not part of M&S’s marketing or cultural policy and strategy, but something they simply had to do to get the project off the ground – like keeping the oak trees. As Lijn now says, “Ironically enough, the oaks and the sculpture ended up sharing the same site, both directly in front of and yet set apart and above the shop itself. The trees are a token of what rampant commercialism has been forced to conserve of the natural environment, and the sculpture a token of their contribution to the community.”
Many say that the trees will probably die, since their roots were disturbed during the bulldozing. But Dragon’s Dance is made of bronze, and will no doubt outlast M&S itself. M&S was not available for comment.
The Local Authority’s laudable policy of requiring the site to contain an artwork appears to have misfired on this occasion, causing the artist to suffer mean treatment. What could and should have been an enjoyable and creative partnership was anything but. The tale raises serious issues for all of us concerned to see ‘Percent for Art’ policies put into place at local, regional and national levels. Critics of such policies and schemes may well use such incidents as ammunition to argue against their wider implementation. It is hoped that they will not succeed. For, other experiences both in the UK and abroad, especially in the USA, show that by the application of professional planning, contractual negotiation and management by artists, arts administrators and art lawyers involved in ‘percent for art’ schemes, much excellent and environmentally beneficial public art can be achieved.
© Henry Lydiate 1995