Just over six months since a fire destroyed the Royal Clarence Hotel – England’s oldest hotel – a temporary art sculpture on the theme of ‘Hope and Renewal’ has appeared on Cathedral Green as part of Art Week Exeter. Perhaps fitting, as the original fire broke out above Castle Fine Art Gallery, this work of art constructed of two tonnes of burnt timber from the hotel commemorates the building, dating back to 1769. Set to a backdrop of Exeter Cathedral and the hotel’s construction site where its demolition continues, the four-metre-high sculpture crafted by local sculptor Martin Staniforth seeks, he believes, to “explore how after disaster, something always emerges”. Using timber that is likely to be over 500 years old, he also states how “disaster and renewal are part of the circle of life.”
Now, I’ve seen my fair share of questionable sculpture – especially as an Art History student. Yet despite the perplexed expressions of many in the crowd of onlookers who surrounded the sculpture when I visited, baffled as to how a pile of wood could possibly be art, for me there’s something rather captivating about this certainly unique work of art. Maybe it’s in part due to my mellowing opinion of modern art; who knows, but for a sculpture born out of fire embedded with hundreds of years of history, I believe it unifies the traditional with the contemporary rather successfully.
it unifies the traditional with the contemporary
Conceptually, there’s a clear sense of it appearing as a ribcage, perhaps a nod to the fact that the timber, held the structure up not just physically but too metaphorically through its meaningful history. Like most works of art, photographs of the object certainly don’t do it justice and to truly grasp the scale of the piece with its juxtaposition of sturdiness and fragility you need to observe it in person.
Though to some the sculpture might seem grossly out of place or a little stiff and awkward for a commemoration of a quintessentially British hotel, for a work of art to be successful, it must create debate and discussion. That it certainly has done. Take works by Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse for example – artworks that offer something different often become the most celebrated. However, whether it’s a fitting memorial for England’s oldest hotel, now that’s purely personal. As author Margaret Hungerford famously said: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Art is, after all, exactly what you choose to make of it.