Should Art Be Used to Push London's Rents Up?

An expensive bronze elephant might make Elephant and Castle even more unaffordable.

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17 July 2014, 6:00am

The original Elephant and Castle symbol, which Sam Keil wants to subvert

A few days ago a proposal by artist Sam Keil for a bronze sculpture to be used in a new square being built in Elephant and Castle, South London, came to light. The sculpture was to be of an elephant “standing on its hind legs on top of a tall castle tower, in the act of leaping into the air with its water-spraying trunk raised high in triumph” – a “subversion of the traditional rather staid symbol of the area”, which is of an elephant standing with a castle on its back. It is “designed to symbolise the regeneration and revitalisation of the heart of London”, but the way the proposal was worded suggests that it might end up symbolising everything bad about this kind of "revitalisation".

Part of the pitch, subtitled “The Effect of a Sam Keil Bronze on Property”, alludes to her recent work on the front of a block of luxury flats in upmarket central London enclave St John’s Wood. The page shows the building adorned with one of her works. On one half of the page, the sculpture is photoshopped out and the caption says, “A very boring block of flats. Charge only medium rent.” Then there’s a picture of the flats as they really are, with Keil’s art. Beneath, it reads: “One of the most desirable residences in North London. Charge what you like”.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with trying to make somewhere look nice and artists who do that should be able to make a living. But Elephant and Castle is an area that is being redeveloped in a way that favours posh apartments that are beyond the means of the existing working class community, which is being pushed out. To take just one example, the Heygate Estate of 1,200 socially rented homes is being demolished and its replacement will include only 79 socially rented homes. In that context is it OK to tout your art on its ability to push up house prices?

I got in touch with the artist to try and discuss it. A perplexed Keil answered the phone and denied all knowledge of the proposal at first. After I told her she’d signed it, she backtracked a little. “Why can’t an artist say that bronze is going to up the price of a building?” she said. “Well it’s true. So what’s your problem? Where are you coming from with this?”

After that, she passed me over to her husband and assistant, who is also theoretical physicist and research associate at University College London, Mike Towler. In a weird stream of consciousness blog post from 2008 he said his wife had got the commission “essentially because she knows one guy with connections”. He also mentioned that, "not only can she sculpt, but she’s got a nice bottom". I was hoping he might throw some light on the situation.

“Oh yeah, that’s just my silly joke,” he told me when I asked him about the "charge what you like" line. “It’s nothing to do with her. I deal with the words stuff. That was just a sort of humorous remark. In fact the whole proposal was supposed to be quite humorous if you read between the lines.”

I found this a bit confusing. Was it just a shit joke, or was there more to it?

“In the main, poor people can’t afford bronze sculptures,” he told me. “You only get rich bastards buying them to be honest. So what’s your point?”

I reiterated the point that this was a bit of an inappropriate thing to say to sell some art.

“To be honest, that’s what development people want to hear, isn’t it?... Why do you feel developers build blocks of flats? As a favour to make sure people have somewhere to live?” he asked, before assuring me that he and Sam were in favour of more affordable housing.

I couldn’t disagree with the implication of his rhetorical question, even though he seemed a bit too relaxed about those implications.

The real blame, though, must surely go to the council and developers who are leading the regeneration in a way that creates that kind of market in the first place. It's their job to get their priorities straight and house people, just as much as it is Sam's job to sell art.

In a letter included in the proposal, Labour councillor Fiona Colley who is Southwark Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Corporate Strategy, and Southwark Council chief executive Eleanor Kelly are said to be very supportive and enthusiastic about the proposal. I approached Fiona Colley and she told me that Keil’s comments were unwelcome and laughed off the proposal as silly and self-aggrandising. It seems the comments are only unwelcome now that they’ve become public. Despite Colley’s assertion that the proposal is not in tune with the council’s aims and objectives, the awkward truth is that it seems to fit in well with the council’s policy of selling out the area to developers with vague assertions of creating a “mixed community” which will in fact be a mixture of foreign buy-to-let investors and very wealthy city workers.

Despite the unfortunate wording of Keir’s proposal, her £60,000 sculpture of a bronze elephant arseing about is still supported by the council because has a link to the historical motif of the area. In truth, that is all they want to keep. As Syd Gale of local blog Southwark Notes told me, “I would think a better symbol of The Elephant is not one up on its hind legs but one shot in the head and it's ivory tusks ripped out. The Council shot it and the developers poached the valuables. All day-to-day events in the regeneration safari.”

@HaydenVernon

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