Does a jug make a mug of public art?


Not everyone is happy with the commissioning of a giant granite ‘Magic Jug’ planned for Belfast, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

ONE THING is certain about a controversial piece of public art planned for Belfast city centre – you won’t be able to miss it. The Magic Jug, for Fountain Street, will be a massive water jug, made from polished black Chinese granite, spurting stylised blue aluminium “water” jets in the form of a Celtic triskelion.

According to the North’s Department of Social Development, which commissioned London-based artist Joss Smith to create the piece, the 5.5 metre Magic Jugis “based upon an antique Irish water jug from around the 1700s and historically is a symbol of water, life and abundance”. A brightly-coloured kingfisher will hover above it, as “a symbol of good fortune for the city and its bright future”. The estimated cost is €120,000.

There have been questions raised about the nature, quality and method of procurement of public art in Belfast and across the North for some time. But, for some, the Magic Jugis the last straw. A group of artists, academics, architects and local business owners have come together to campaign against the installation of the super-sized pitcher. They’re unhappy with the design and the towering scale of the piece, arguing that it will look brash, out-of-place and cumbersome in the pleasantly low-key environs of Fountain Street. But they’re not simply concerned with the appearance of the jug.

“Yes, I think the Magic Jugis rubbish – a silly, frivolous piece of public art,” says campaign organiser Daniel Jewesbury. “But my own aesthetic response is by the by. The real problem is the commissioning process. Why were no artists involved in the commissioning of this piece? How was it advertised? What were the criteria? We need more transparency in how public money is spent. We don’t want to be just given public art and told why it’s good for us.”

Jewesbury is concerned that government agencies with no remit for the arts, such as the North’s Roads Service and Department of the Environment, are taking a lead in the commissioning of public art. “The Magic Jugis part of the Belfast ‘Streets Ahead’ regeneration project – so you’ve got a piece of public art that basically comes out of a road re-surfacing scheme.” The protest group is also concerned about the environmental costs of transporting a five-metre chunk of black Shanxi granite from China to Belfast.

At a time when €1.3 million has been cut from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s budget, Jewesbury is particularly disturbed that so many public art commissions go to artists from outside the North. “The last thing we want is an artist from London explaining us to ourselves according to some spurious local history agenda.”

But Andrew Irvine, Belfast’s city centre manager, insists that the commissioning process for the Magic Jugwas perfectly open and transparent, and that people on the streets are keen on the new addition. “Not only are we doing this dressing exercise and giving ourselves something that looks very attractive, actually it has a physical purpose of connecting areas, encouraging people to move around the retail circuit.”

It seems, then, that the Magic Jugis intended as an icon on a shopping map as well as an inspiration for social harmony. Either way, Jewesbury is unimpressed. “Is this ornament really going to help us find our way in a post-conflict society? It’s nothing more than window-dressing.”