Curator Talk: Jon Wood, Henry Moore Institute

How brilliant to see Kingy again.  When I was young he stood in the forecourt of the King Kong Car Co, first on Camp Hill (below), then, until 1976, on a larger lot on Ladypool Road, Birmingham.

King Kong Kars

Kingy on the King Kong Car Co Forecourt, 1973-76

He’s recently been brought out of retirement in rural Cumbria by the Henry Moore Institute to represent their ‘City Sculpture Projects 1972’ exhibition in Leeds. It’s good to know he’s still in good shape.

Jon Wood, Research Curator at the Henry Moore Institute, is an erudite and articulate speaker with a passion for his subject. He began with an overview of the Institute. I had no idea!

Jon Wood interviewing Tony Cragg
Jon Wood (left) in conversation with Tony Cragg

The Henry Moore Institute works in partnership with Leeds Art Gallery, has 3 exhibitions a year, has 35,000 books on sculpture, runs multiple schemes for sculptors and academics, has monthly talks, holds conferences.

One recent exhibition reviewed the 1972 City Sculpture Project – when ‘city orientated sculptures’ were placed in 8 cities for 6 months that year.  Drawings, maquettes and some of the sculptures were brought together for the exhibition:

KK header-city-sculpture-project-1721-1KK city-sculpture-project-1972-install-tile

Which is where Kingy comes in.  Built in fibre glass by Nicholas Munro, he originally stood in the Bull Ring in Birmingham. How is he ‘city orientated’?  According to Wood,  Munro said he always felt disorientated by the city and so was King Kong. He was St Martins, the judging panel were St Martins, so the people and council of Birmingham, expecting ‘city orientated’, got ‘giant gorilla’.

I only remember Kingy from his Ladypool Road days – but with great affection. Thinking of Debbie Stevenson’s talk on the City and Memory last week,  it’s interesting to look back and muse on public sculpture memory and place.  Birmingham city centre had been redeveloped in the early 1960s. From my experience, many locals would empathise with King Kong in feeling disorientated by the new Bull Ring centre, where Kingy once stood.  The former Bull Ring used to be a focal point for the community, with St Matin’s church at it’s heart. The new Bullring worshiped the car.  It cut off St Martin’s from the social centre, sent people scurrying down ramps and through underpasses to exist in a low level and underground world, or up into a warren of windowless corridors that was the new Bull Ring indoor shopping centre. It’s appropriate that Kingy later became an icon for a used car company.

The recent redevelopment of the Bull Ring has put people back in the heart of the city, reconnecting with St Martin’s, creating functional public spaces.  (Pleased to say David contributed to the new Bull Ring.  Holemasters made the apertures for the lift shafts and doorways in the makeover of the Rotunda (above left), prepared the New street area roads for resurfacing, and took sensitive areas of the Bull Ring road system apart – New Street station runs beneath, and no plans existed for the Victorian tunnel system, so the road had to be removed with care. I digress.) But, Brummies of a certain age want Kingy back in their city. I think this is because however dismal the 1960’s Bull Ring was, it was the repository of their memories, which has now been swept away.  Public sculpture is not only about civic and social identity, it’s also about personal identity.  Kingy forges a link between the late 20th century and early 21st century Bull Rings and connects people to their individual memories of place.

Back to the talk……  Jon Wood has conducted interviews for ‘Artist’s Lives’.  The interviews last for 25-50 hours, and record all the artists’ memories.  Interestingly, he said that after doing a few he could see how art and artistic thinking informs their lives generally.  Artists he interviewed include:

Tony Cragg, currently showing at YSP

Bill Woodrow

Gillian Wise

Bruce McClean

There are a couple of future events I’d like to see at the Henry Moore Institute, and I’ve booked Tony Crag Artist Talk at YSP – can’t wait to have a couple of days visiting YSP and the Hepworth.


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