Taking as his starting point notions of space, scale, material and the temporal, Steve Messam’s site-specific installation When The Red Rose in Preston was delivered as part of the wider series of events in September’s Lancashire Encounter programme. Composed of tethered balloons of various sizes affixed to the walls of Surgeons Court and three other sites in Lancashire, the resulting work (and its sister works) serves to highlight this otherwise innocuous space, transforming or redefining the street from thoroughfare to a meeting place and site of meaning-production, and re-defining our function as citizens to what Margaret Morse, in her essay The Body, the Image and the Space-in-Between refers to as the active performers of a work of installation art.
By engaging with the tactile elements of the work and the site – the balloons resting next to the aged brickwork of the buildings which flank the street – Messam draws our attention to the shifting corporeality of the sculpture and the environment it is placed in; the fragility of the individual balloons as they rub against the rough walls and the mass and strength they gain as part of an assemblage. This intertwining of objects and his creation of a situation in which we are called to physically navigate the location to see the work betrays the artist’s egalitarian aim: to challenge individuals to come together and share the experience, to throw viewers into a social relation in which they feel free to discuss the work and the effect it has on them with others.
Surgeons Court at first appears to be an inconsequential location for the display of an installation; however, upon learning of its history during a discussion with the artist – its name derived from the doctors’ surgeries which opened along its stretch – the flesh-like, throbbing presence of the sculpture seems to be re-contextualised.
As spectators, the work encourages a certain type of exploration or performative engagement, to be viewed from a distance and in detail, to compare our gestalt experience of it and our experience of its precise details, and in so doing heightens our awareness of the space and how our body occupies it alongside objects and others. As the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described in his career-long critical examination of our perceptual processes, it is our shared nature as subjects to be open to the world via our body; it is the body which is the pre-condition for the perception of experiences which lie in the situations we encounter there (in the form of events) which give structure our lives, and it is through our body that we are given the potential to engage with others—that we are granted the potential for co-existence.
It is this engagement with the social which Messam’s When The Red Rose excels at as public sculpture. Although it does not present itself as a conceptual piece – one could simply appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the work – there is a subtle encouragement for us to reflect and discuss not only our position as embodied spectators encountering an artwork within a situation which the artist has constructed, but also as members of an intertwined public sphere.
Michael is a writer based in Preston and is an Undergraduate student of Philosophy at the University of Central Lancashire.