I don’t I don’t know much about public art but I know what I like much about public art but I know what I like
My friend recently sent me a picture of herself beaming, wrapped in a furry parka, standing next to what appeared to be a sick-looking man. His skin had an unhealthy yellow tinge that stood out sharply against the snow in the background, his eyes were closed and his arms were extended like a zombie’s. The friend – Prianka – is at Wellesley College in the United States, and the man was an art installation by Tony Matelli that’s caused a lot of controversy. It’s called Sleepwalker, and the Wellesley girls found it so disturbing that many signed a petition demanding its removal.
I’ve only recently started noticing the art scattered about for public display in Cambridge. I wish we had something as exciting as Sleepwalker. We do have something called the Clockcroach – a huge golden clock that clashes horribly with the subtle colours of the surrounding colleges. It has a swinging pendulum and a giant insect on top of it – and is the ugliest thing I have seen in my life. It does have good shock value and doesn’t hurt tour companies – this is probably as exciting as Cambridge will ever get.
Trinity College, though, can be quite aesthetically pleasing. It has graceful rooms with fireplaces and libraries and corridors all lined with delicate oils and soothing portraits – there’s apparently lots of valuable art lurking about. In the centre of its neat, symmetrical Great Court is the Trinity fountain, a beautiful piece of 17th-century architecture. It was apparently where the students used to wash, which seems very romantic now that we aren’t allowed to climb on it because that would be vandalism. Still, I prefer having an en suite bathroom, however pleasant the prospect of waiting your turn for a bath in the freezing cold outdoors in a queue of 1,100 students sounds.
We can’t hold a candle to University College London, though, which has the embalmed body of a man in the lobby. The fellow’s name is Jeremy Bentham, who was involved in the founding of the university, and had the marvellous idea of outlining in his will exactly what he wanted done with his body. It now sits regally in his favourite chair in a glass case. The head, unfortunately, is made of wax – the real thing used to be kept in a case but students kept stealing it for pranks. You can hardly blame them; I doubt I’d be able to resist the temptation. I don’t know what it is with creepy statues of men in educational institutions – my old school, Dubai College, actually had a life-size figure of an enormously fat man in the Humanities block. He was also headless with a bloody neck – a treat for our beauty-seeking eyes every time we had a geography lesson. It was student artwork and pretty amazing at that.
Nevertheless, I’m afraid I am a boring but staunch believer in the whole “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” jam. A mellow Rembrandt, or water lilies or winged cherubs are just much nicer to look at than headless fat men. When it comes to art, I simply don’t see the appeal of the grotesque.
The writer is an 18-year-old student at Cambridge who grew up in Dubai
Updated: March 8, 2014 04:00 AM