New university artwork is dividing opinion

by Jillian Ward 

The finishing touches are being made to the Palatine Centre’s extensive art display – but student opinion is divided over the installations.

The pieces of art currently showcased are only a fraction of Durham University’s modern art collection, one of the largest of all British universities.

Artists on show range from Dietmar Vollmar, Picasso and to local artists of the north-east including Fenwick Lawson and Peter Sales.

While leading a tour of the building’s artworks, Henry Dyson, Keeper of Fine Art at the University, said he hopes students will “learn to appreciate art” while surrounded by it on a daily basis.

Jenna Keir, a second-year Law student, said she appreciates the artwork as it “gives character to the building, which could otherwise be considered pretty sterile.”

Another Law student, Raoul Hodgson, said: “I would appreciate it more if I actually used that building for lectures, rather than the centre essentially just being an excuse for brand new expensive fancy offices for professors.”

Nevertheless, the art is not intended solely for the benefit of students. In a press release, Vice-Chancellor Chris Higgins said “we hope […] visitors from the city, region and beyond […] will enjoy the public art on display.”

Mr Dyson pointed out that Peter Sales’ relief sculpture in particular might attract local interest. The work, titled ‘Elvet Colliery,’ depicts the mining process, commemorating Durham’s historical significance in the industrial revolution.

He reminded tour-goers that three mining shafts had to be filled and capped in order to build the Palatine Centre.

The University press release stated that the art on display is meant to “enhance the lines, forms and beauty of the interior of the building.”

Mr Dyson highlights the complimentary nature of primary colours against the building’s white walls. The bright art, he added, is “something to cheer you up on a dark day and brighten your life.”

Other pieces, however, are less cheerful. Darker themes are displayed in two newly-installed sculptures by Fenwick Lawson, displayed in the Law School and outside the library.

The sculpture outside the library, ‘Cry for Justice – The Scream’, depicts four figures inspired by shocking images of the Vietnam conflict and Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.

A second-year Politics student stated that the statue is a “slightly discouraging” sight “on your way out of the library late at night.”

However, Mr Dyson suggested to tour-goers that public art exists to “render spaces challenging and significant.”
A sarcastic post about the statue on the ‘Overheard in Durham’ Facebook group on 20th November attracted 94 ‘likes’.

It said: ““Oh, those statues outside the library? Not only are they beautiful, but they really do inspire me to work extra hard during the daily grind at the library.” – said no one, ever.”

The other newly-installed Lawson statue, ‘The Hostage’, is displayed in the corridor of the Law School. It is a tribute to the hostages of the Lebanon Hostage Crisis. The use of the chainsaw as a tool by the artist is supposed to highlight the brutality and suffering endured by the hostages.

Raoul Hodgson said he found the piece “unpleasant,” and does not appreciate “a contorted human lying on the ground.”
Mr Dyson defended the placement of the sculpture in the Law School as a reminder to students that “law [is] about preserving freedom and furthering humanity.”

Finishing touches, such as labels on African tribe art and the installation of additional paintings, are still on their way.

Photograph: Nicoletta Asciuto 

2 thoughts on “New university artwork is dividing opinion

  • It would be better if Lawson were to sculpt in cheese for the benefit of the church mice. The metal casting is too durable. It would relieve those who recognise that at some future time or preferably now these clumsy pieces were better removed from such places as Lindisfarne Priory where they lack any sense of time or place

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