Yesterday in Edinburgh I saw a work which now ranks within my favourites. It is as generous and accessible piece of art as I have seen.
Being an architecture student in Edinburgh during the noughties i became familiar with all of the many closes, cut throughs, strange stairs and allies that Edinburgh and particularly the Old Town has to offer. One of my favourites was the Scotsman steps which is a strange set of square spiral steps that link the Scotsman Hotel on North Bridge to Market Street, close by the back entrance of Waverley Station. When I was a student these steps were always run down and had a very distinct odour of urine and, maybe this was my own naive-ness, but you were never quite sure who you might meet on them. The steps were refurbished in 2011 and as part of their refurbishment The Fruitmarket Gallery commissioned a permanent installation of public art.
Martin Creed won the commission and overclad all 104 steps with different and distinct marble. Despite the opulence that this might imply (I can only assume that this was not a cheap installation and would never be commissioned by a developer as a way to clad some steps), this work is the very best embodiment of public art - not only is it art in a public place and but it is also art for the public to pass through and walk on.
Few pieces of art when installed are so un-showy as to literally have you walk all over it, in fact you might not even realise there was an art installations but for the plaque at start and end, the piece recedes into the background and is a functional and hardwearing solution to the thorough fare.
When you do start to cotton on though it is a delight, each stone is unique with some being dark greys,blacks and beiges, but there is a myriad of different colours, reds with golden veins, blues, book matched zebra stripes. A metaphor for society?
This is the best of public art - it is truly democratic: relating to, appealing to, or available to everyone. You might post rationalise about metaphor and meaning but at the end of the day this is highly functional - fit for its purpose as a stair. Yet without being intrusive it brings colour and interest animating the stair when you do notice it. It is outside of fashion, it is not ‘on trend’, and it is not condescending or patronising - a great joy to experience and a wonderful example of art for the public.