Kong: Sculpture Island

The Birmingham Post ran an article last November on the back of an ‘Elvis Live on Screen’ roadshow that was about to roll into town, hosted by Priscilla Presley. Famously, Elvis never played in the UK but, surmised arts correspondent Graham Young, had he come to Birmingham during a key interval in 1972, he could have met the city’s own ‘King’ – namely Nicholas Monro’s King Kong sculpture in Manzoni Gardens. Priscilla must have been baffled but diplomatically agreed that it could indeed have happened. Further, ‘Elvis may even have visited your Bullring.’ As a piece of journalism it was drivel, made worse by missing the opportunity to report on a key event happening beyond Birmingham’s borders that week. Outside the Henry Moor Institute in Leeds, King Kong was going public after a forty year period of retreat.

Young’s hypothetical meeting highlighted the enduring and unshakeable fascination that the citizens of Birmingham have with the sculpture, decades after its removal. His was a game of conjecture and freeform nostalgic word association, being played to squeeze a further drop of cultural value from the work, which many perceive as being unduly cut short when it was uninstalled a mere six months after its arrival. ‘What might have been, had these two legends only lived a little longer?’

No other example of Birmingham’s public art works has been subject to the same degree of anecdote, speculation, false memory, hand-wringing nostalgia, campaign for return or shoddy research. The sense of loss seems out of all proportion to the immediately apparent artistic value of the work. Further, the phenomenon is not confined to those who were resident in the city at the time: new comers become absorbed into the myth. In the last few weeks I’ve spotted its likeness in promotions for a comedy club, satirical cartoons, store promotion and now in two separate exhibitions, one wholly devoted to the sculpture. It is as if it were still a current landmark, in a way that happens regularly for Gormley’s Angel of the North.

Why so much affection, by proxy?

King of the Castle

King of the Castle

In November last year, I met Kong for the first time, towering outside Henry Moore Institute. Looking for it on The Headrow, on the walk up from the station had the same sense of anticipation as seeing truly spectacular works such as the Uffington White Horse or the Avebury stone circle, or on holiday as a child, spotting the sea for the first time from the car. It’s a jarring moment to spot him through the Christmas funfair rides in the square outside. Seeing Kong back in a city setting, in broad daylight feels like he has been torn directly from the realm of fantasy, mirroring his cinematic counterpart who was forcibly removed from Skull Island to be enslaved in New York. Like the movie Kong, his fibreglass frame is scarred by unknown forces (arm crushed by a reversing works lorry? Scalped by a T Rex?) His hands and feet are more subtly rendered than is apparent in photos. He is sexless. His presence is having a powerful lunchtime effect on the selfie hunter generation.

I’d tried to meet previously, while on an accidental holiday in Cumbria a while ago. I’d noticed the  roadsigns to Penrith and made the connection to the sculpture’s current location, despite peripherally thinking Penrith was in Wales. How hard would it be to find him? The ‘in-the-know’ locational statement to claim for him was ‘lying on his back in a car park (or market) in Penrith’. Google maps confirmed this, his form visible on a railway embankment. He was no longer supine – and his broad shoulders were now white. His role at the market was as a meeting point for ‘lost granddads’. However, on arrival at the market he was nowhere to be seen.

Kong was Here

Kong was Here

Despite knowing his position was intended as a landmark, I scoured the outer reaches of the car park on foot for clues, but Kong remained a step ahead. Back in the realm of wifi, I discovered at leisure more recent images of Kong which placed him in a more rural setting than the market. This proved to be the garden of current guardian Lesley Maby… address not given.

A few months later I attended the Art Walk guided tour in Birmingham, which promised the current low-down on Kong’s whereabouts, and other public art insider knowledge. However, the two guides were afflicted by the same creeping mythologising that affects the whole story. Thus both the given original and current location of the sculpture were wrong and one guide remembered the sculpture as being bright purple. In 2017, placing where Manzoni Gardens actually was requires careful lining up of the few extant buildings and overlaying maps past and present. It seems right to place the exact location of the statue as somewhere beneath Footasylum in the west wing of the current Bullring. Curiously I’ve seen the colour miscall from other sources, most likely due to successively degrading reproductions of an original 1970s colour photograph. Kong was most certainly slate grey.

Peripherally, the Kong researcher will know that the figure has changed colour many times and worn many costumes, but the Art Walk demonstrated that Google and Wiki were now our default post-truth authorities, bolstered by folk-knowledge and our own hazy recollections. So to what source should the rigorous researcher turn? For the longest time, the dependable standard reference tool for West Midlands public art information was George Noszlopy’s Public Sculpture of Birmingham, published by the University of Liverpool.

However, about Kong, it is plain wrong. After being traced to Edinburgh in the 1990s, the sculpture is reported to have been ‘destroyed’. This slip is almost certainly down to the researchers reporting someone else’s ‘last I heard’ misrememberings and in the context of a University Press publication, it lends a gilded red herring to the legend. A recent New York Review of Books article on the exhibition gives the sculptor’s name as ‘Michael’ Monro, suggesting that the accepted larger function of the art work is now a deliberate effort to steer the subject into fantasy.

Inside the gallery, in the company of creator Nicholas Munro, owner Lesley Maby and the latter-day ‘Carl Denham’ Derek Horton, the various threads of the story overlap again, many meeting for the first time. Derek is the reason that Kong – and not a maquette – is here and not still cemented in place in Lesley’s back garden. His long term obsession with the sculpture has spawned its own The King and I show at & Model Gallery, across the road from Henry Moore. Listening to his accounts of its removal by digger, crane and lorry, Lesley’s insistence that he be given a new coat of paint for his comeback show and assorted chapters in the chronicles of Kong is fascinating, and all outside the remit of the exhibition. Lesley is happy to fill in the gaps too. At some point, the sculpture in its domestic setting became a memorial for her late husband. For most of its life, Kong has been the calling card, mascot, sidekick and brand mark of Nigel Maby, and his story, the one that’s most closely connected to an ownership of Kong, still remains to be told.

The fuller story of Kong is not its brief life as public art but rather all the identities and functions it has had since then. Of its 45 years of existence, only during its first six months was it intended as art. It feels like an experiment in understanding what art does, by setting the same object in different social conditions. In the setting of an art gallery, and the resultant conversations, several mysteries become clearer. A Hollywood legend such as King Kong, with 40 years in the public consciousness was always going to be popular. For the public to be told that this creation that the whole family was enjoying was in fact art – Pop Art – would have been received with surprise and delight. Children in the otherwise bland Manzoni Gardens would have had a moment of thinking ‘why is this here?’, only to be snatched away a few months later. It would appear in ever more remote locations around the city before disappearing for good. Derek announces to the gathered crowd that he is once such child – at 16 he saw the sculpture and felt that if this could be art, then he could be an artist. It’s surely every artist’s unspoken intention – to quietly hand on the torch. Nicholas is intrigued by all the attention, and almost apologetically has to say that none of the impact was intended, none of it had any deeper meaning. It was Pop Art. These days he’s a scientist and is in town to give a paper on anti-gravity to the University.

Outside another experiment is underway: for three months, Kong is meeting the citizens of a new city and a new generation of children. Certainly he will be more comprehensively documented than in 1972, and factoring all the social media Likes, Faves and Retweets, perhaps he will have an even wider audience than his time in Birmingham. Then he will again disappear. How will the children of Leeds remember him?

City Sculpture Projects 1972 is on at Henry Moore Institute until Sunday 19 Feb 2017

The King and I is on at & Model Gallery until 19 February 2017

Kong: Skull Island opens on Fri 10 March at selected theatres

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