In between the glass-fronted perimeters of Bermondsey Square, on the tiled ground, stands an empty plinth. This robust hexagon, coated a light beige to match the innocuous colour scheme of the commercial properties, could well be a part of the developer’s vision. It is sympathetic to the clusters of metal octadecahedron inevitably installed to add interest and dynamism to an otherwise anaesthetised square.
The plinth is an element of ‘Pylon and Pier’, Lucy Tomlin’s commission for ‘SCULPTURE AT Bermondsey Square’ a temporary public sculpture programme led by VITRINE. Strewn by the side of the structure is a small male nude cast in marble jesmonite. The fallen classical sculpture struggles to move along the square weighted by a globe held above his head. This makes the polished figure recognisable as Atlas, a mythological colossus who led the Titans against Zeus and was condemned to hold up the sky. Placed in the square, rather than above it on the plinth, his power and virility, as Lucy Tomlins described to me, is challenged.
Bringing down the image, as Tomlins continued, allows intimate engagement with the figure. Lowering the sculpture makes it accessible, and as she discussed, particularly at busy periods such as during the Friday antiques market, users of the square have to interact with this body. Closer, the work becomes confused. A crack in Atlas’s knee joint is noticeable and his face is serene and calm. The conditions of the fall change, perhaps suggesting the figure jumped to the ground to resist being iconised and is now focused on moving away from the square’s rhetoric.
The politics of the public square were informative for the development of this piece. Tomlins drew on Wallace Steven’s poem, ‘The Public Square’ (1931) in her preparations as a way to explore the symbolic importance of this architecture. The commission’s title, ‘Pylon and Pier’, is extracted from the second stanza, a description of the demolition of a modernist building facing into a square read as a metaphor for systemic collapse. Tomlins’ borrowing of this phrase, and the character Atlas who appears in the poem, points to her concerns over the inconsistencies of public space, often privately regulated and counter-intuitive to public engagement.
Similar to former commissions, which includes Frances Richardson’s ‘Loss of object and bondage to it’, the piece succeeds in provoking the anodyne surroundings. Falling into the pathway of everyday users, Atlas demands attention and reflection. The combination of aesthetics used by the artist; the sculpture’s classical idealism and the plinth’s urban development chic, bring a welcome cynicism and criticality to the space. Reversing the elevated perspective associated with statues and the celebration of persons of distinction, the work suggests a levelling of power. The empty plinth and lain figure play with conventions and leave unresolved questions about accessibility and the principles of hierarchy.