Belfast's public art expensive, patronising, self-important tat that means nothing to cityIt's a crime to spend vast sums on dire sculptures, says Fionola Meredith, give it to cash-strapped local artists instead
In Budapest there is a field just outside the city limits known as Memento Park. It's where they deposited all the gigantic, grandiose public statues of Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels when they were removed after the fall of communism.
Couldn't we have a similar place in Belfast, where all the bad public art could be dumped?
We do have an awful lot of it after all: such a bulky, ugly collection of expensive steel erections with pretentious names, cluttering up the city, getting in the way.
And now even outsiders have noticed our predicament. The Spectator magazine has named Origin, a six-metre 'raindrop' stuck on top of a five-metre steel pole in Cavehill Country Park as "the worst new public art of the past year".
"Haven't the people of Northern Ireland suffered enough?" sympathises The Spectator. It describes Origin as "clumsy, aggressive, cheap-looking (despite costing £100,000), it's the very opposite of a raindrop. Like the worst public art, it's also the very opposite of art - ungenerous, suggestive only of itself".
Well, yes. It's dire. And the fact that it spoils the glorious view across the city from this part of Cavehill only adds to its crimes.
But is Origin the worst public art in the UK? I'm not sure it's even the worst in Belfast.
There's those pointless and painful-looking metal loops at Cornmarket, which go by the grand title of The Spirit Of Belfast - or The Onion Rings, as we are encouraged to call them colloquially.
Then, at Lanyon Place, there's The Beacon Of Hope, aka Nuala with the Hula - that's the giant woman who looks like she's in an exercise class, balancing on a ball, her steel hair gripped in a ponytail, raising a large hoop over her head. Sorry, but it doesn't make me think of "the universal philosophy of peace, harmony and thanksgiving" as it's supposed to do. It makes me think of LA Fitness, sweaty leggings and the need for a good hot shower.
As for the Balls on the Falls, which we must refer to as RISE - note the pompous capitals - well, apparently it is "a representation of a new sun rising to celebrate a new chapter in the history of Belfast". Who knew? I certainly didn't. Call me a philistine, but I see nothing more than a big white pair of interlocked balls plonked above the Westlink.
What these public artworks have in common is that they are vastly expensive (the costs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds), they are massive in scale, they are shamelessly banal, and they seek to sentimentalise post-conflict society.
All that fluffy stuff about peace, love and a grand new dawn? Please, spare me - spare all of us. This is not just mawkish, bland and empty, it's deeply patronising. Poor dears, you had a nasty war. Never mind, here's a nice lady with a hoop to cheer you up. Feel better about yourselves now?
To be honest I'd rather look at paramilitary murals, poorly-drawn perspective and all, than at these overpriced beacons of schmaltz. At least the murals are authentic.
But whether I like or dislike Origin, RISE and the rest is not really the point. It's a subjective thing. Maybe you love Nuala with the Hula, or you can't get enough of the Onion Rings. Fair enough. It's an individual call.
What's undeniable, however, is that the arts in Belfast are broke. Cut, cut and cut again, so that there is barely any flesh left on the bones at all. So instead of inviting public art 'specialists', often jetting in from elsewhere, to explain us to ourselves through several tonnes of steel and a trite story about inter-community harmony, why not hand the money over to the artists who actually live and work here? The people who really understand this complicated, contradictory city, where nothing is ever exactly as it seems? There's something truly appalling about starving the city's artists of funding while lavishing enormous sums on these super-sized chunks of metal.
So let's put an end to public art now. Pack everything up - hoops, balls, teardrops and the rest - and cart it all off to a specially-designated field on the outskirts of the city. Let's stick that silly spike on top of St Anne's Cathedral in there, too. In years to come people can wander around the slowly-rusting exhibits and marvel that so much money was ever spent on such terrible, over-blown, self-important tat. We can call it Peace Process Park.