the sculptor and the skate rat
A patch of clean concrete, no bigger than a child’s mattress, stares up blanky from the grounds of Dublin Castle, a complex of government buildings dating from the 1300s to the present day. Tourists trickle past this curious inverse shadow and as they do, some pause to read the discreet plaque embedded in the ground nearby: “UNBROKEN LINE Michael Warren 2010”.
The plaque refers to a phantom presence; an artwork that vanished in 2018 from its public repository within a symbolic space that once represented the safest place in the country. Missing is Michael Warren’s Unbroken Line, a collection of five folded steel sculptures which sat like unmelting icebergs between the castle’s conference centre and gift shop.
In some respects, this vanishing act feels familiar; Dublin has a habit of repurposing its public artwork. Sculptures, in particular, seem to have a knack for losing kudos quickly and several now linger in cultural exile far from their original location. The unusual thing about Unbroken Line is that it was genuinely mourned after its disappearance. More interesting still is that the artwork’s most stirring eulogies were penned on Instagram by the 13-year-old’s responsible for its disappearance.
I am interested in public places like Dublin Castle’s courtyard because I see them as continually contested terrains. To survive and remain relevant over a lifespan of centuries they must be able to adapt. Though their cobbled courts and crenellations suggest a certain defiance toward change they are also undeniably modern, deftly able to serve what Philosopher Marshall Berman referred to as the “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal.” The individual stones, walls and buildings remain in place but their social, political and even spatial functions fluctuate constantly as public consensus drifts and new value systems emerge. For instance, in the 16th century, forces loyal to Henry VIII displayed severed heads on spikes at the Castle gates to curb the natives’ rebellious tendencies, while in contemporary times the castle functions as an exhibition centre to celebrate this same non-conformist culture.
When the removal of Unbroken Line was chronicled on my Instagram feed it felt as though I was witnessing a sort of spatial evolution-in-progress. The dominance of certain city forces and their ability to shape the spaces we share was suddenly laid bare. As a citizen I feel that such events represent a good opportunity for the public to question the motives behind such change; motives which may not always be apparent when we experience them in their traditional, latent form, such as when a familiar pathway gets resurfaced or a traffic route is altered overnight. In the case of removing an artwork we may reasonably question who benefits from such an action? If it is removed because the space has been abandoned or deemed unworthy, then a commentary on the people who enjoyed its presence within the space is also implied.
I first met Oscar as I walked my children to school. Oscar was a senior student; not yet a teenager but almost divested of the dew-fresh innocence which most of the younger students still possessed. As we walked on the footpath, Oscar commanded the road from the authority of his thin plywood deck, before stopping to greet the lollipop lady with a smile. When summer came, he left for another school: his parents had separated and his mother wanted to move closer to her social circle on the other side of town. The next time I saw him was in the grasp of an angry shop owner. His blonde wavy locks had transformed into a tight glistening buzz cut. I spoke with the shop owner, explained that I knew the boy, and agreed to pay for the sugary swag Oscar was caught with.
Shortly after, during my lunchtime at work, he appeared again, this time on the Instagram feed of a local skate shop that I frequented with my son. Videos featuring Oscar began to appear on a weekly basis. Some formed a permanent archive on the accounts I followed, others disappeared within a matter of hours. Their content mostly concerned Oscar’s progress on a skateboard, difficult tricks mastered or new terrain visited, but there was also space for personal observations and vignettes of daily life in Dublin. His Instagram posts began to inform me of what it was like to occupy a city in a manner which eluded the typical justifications that others may be seen to rely on. I and most people I know, frequent the city to benefit from internal amenities such as pubs, shops, schools, restaurants, theatres and galleries, but Oscar’s priority destination spaces are the city’s external fabric: the streets, courtyards and pools of concrete space that hold the internal transaction-related amenities together. The city’s agenda, the one I had come to recognize as normal, was being supplanted every time I checked my phone, dissolved by the will of penniless teenagers.
It was on Oscar’s Instagram feed, during the summer of 2017, that I first encountered the sculpture Unbroken Line. Since moving to Dublin, I had visited Dublin Castle on several occasions for lectures, family lunches and looping games of chase around the gardens of the Chester Beatty Library without ever noticing the sculpture’s presence.
When the sculpture appears on my screen it is alone, but soon its taut white form is accompanied by the sound of rumbling wheels. The video’s protagonist presents himself, eyes transfixed on the elevated surface of the artwork’s upper face. Timed to perfection, and moving at speed, he snaps the board downwards with a tap of his back foot and controls its airborne trajectory with an angled scrape of his leading leg. Body and board land, supported four inches above the ground before rolling off again within seconds. The grey and black streaks left on the sculpture are of no concern to him. They are an acceptable by-product of an afternoon well spent with friends in the open air.
A few months after the first videos were posted, something unusual started to appear in my Instagram feed: the artwork had been removed from its location and Oscar had begun taking photos of the residual, empty space. Captioned “Why they take away the spot” and accompanied by multiple crying emoji faces it was hard not to adopt a told you so attitude in response. However, something about the circumstances made it feel less like a Visigoth bemoaning the lack of theatre options after the sacking of Rome, and more like a genuine display of grief. I began to wonder if these posts could be interpreted as an act of civic demonstration; the protest cry of anomic adolescents in response to public policy on decorum.
If the purpose of public space is to serve a community, then who gets to decide how the community is defined and how their needs should be served? I am thinking about this when I sit down in Oscar’s kitchen to interview him about the city he lives in. Behind us, his mother is busy cooking pasta for her hungry teenage son—she’s the one who introduced him to skateboarding by bringing him to a festival called Kings of Concrete when he was five. From this early age Oscar has been conscious of skateboarding as a phenomenon which belongs in his city. It isn’t foreign or trendy—it just is—and now he can’t live without it.
We talk about the removal of the “white metal ledges” from Dublin Castle. Security men have always had a presence there, and typically Oscar would only get a few attempts to land his trick before he was moved on. Sundays were the best for filming it. As we speak, I begin to wonder what a Dubliner like Oscar thinks about the cultural heritage which surrounds him. The truth is simpler than I expected; he doesn’t think about it: “If it looks fun to skate, then skate it.”
For Oscar, the city exists as a matrix of “spots”, micro-spaces capable of hosting the spectacle of skateboarding, which link up through the movement of his body. No single location holds a primary importance. Ejection from one location just leads him onwards to the next. Seemingly unprogrammed destinations are frequented according to their capacity to thrill and delight and by such the city is transformed into a playground. For many adults there is a tendency to observe this colonization of urban space by unproductive others as unwarranted. “Why don’t they skate in the skateparks we built for them?” is a common refrain. The logic of this argument is reinforced by the spatially segregated patterns of culture which exist elsewhere. Patterns which have done little to stem the rise of childhood obesity, currently at 25% in Ireland, or combat the rate of Irish teen suicide which sits among the highest in Europe.
A few months after I interviewed Oscar, and six months after the sculpture was removed, I found myself in discussion with a member of the Art Management Department of Dublin Castle. She is sympathetic to skateboarders, having driven her son to skateparks on plenty of weekends, but considers the removal of Unbroken Line as somewhat inevitable. To her, the will of the artist must be respected and if a piece is not being afforded the respect it deserves then something has to happen. There is a decency in this approach which is difficult to argue with but it is a policy-based response. If a sculpture gets scuffed in a city, and nobody notices, does the city still deserve sculpture?
About two years after it disappeared, Unbroken Line cropped up again. This time on the surface of some glossy postcards that I was browsing in the Visual Arts Centre in Carlow. As heavy rain began to fall outside the crystalline interior of the gallery, I wondered how the sculptor feels about his work being experienced in 2D form. Would it comfort its creator to know that its precious white shell no longer bore the brunt of public exposure, that the dignity of its unblemished skin no longer depended on the diligence of security guards in Dublin Castle, a corps of bodyguards-to-the-inanimate who regarded Unbroken Line as “a bloody nightmare” to protect? For me, it is hard not to view the act of removing Unbroken Line as being a negative outcome for both the sculpture and the skate rat. The former is denied the potency of its visual impact on the space, while the latter is the victim of a spatial sanction, resulting in one less reason for his presence to be welcome within the public realm. If there is any positive result to be gleaned from the affair it is that Unbroken Line may live to see another day, but the impact it once had on the space it occupied, whether scripted or not, is lost to us.
On the March 27, 2020, all buildings overseen by Ireland’s Office of Public Works, including Dublin Castle, shut their doors as part of the country’s lockdown measures to combat the spread of Covid-19. As I write this, on a warm day in June, the Castle’s gates remain shut, though the air outside invites me to explore the city as it gradually awakens from the depths of pandemic slumber. As I walk, I can’t help but speculate on what lessons the country has learned from the recent savage exposure of our city’s fragile inter-dependencies. Will Ireland emerge in a world where the attraction of external visitors still trumps most other considerations concerning the management of important spaces, or will we envisage a better home for Dubliners? Perhaps now is a time for hope, a unique time to question whether a city’s population should be rewarded instead of punished for making their home meaningful to them.
SEÁN FOGARTY is an architect based in Dublin. His writing on the theme of external space has been featured in online and print publications for the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland and the Irish Architecture Foundation.
(Image credit: "This plaque and shape are the traces that remain in Dublin Castle of Michael Warren’s sculpture Unbroken Line, 2010." Photo by Seán Fogarty, 2019.)