Towering and naked 'Verity' divides small Devon town

By Matthew Bell

Damien Hirst's Verity.  Photo / AP
Damien Hirst's Verity. Photo / AP

Verity is her name, though some feel she's a bit Hannibal Lecter for their taste. Welcome to Ilfracombe, scene of the latest public art controversy, where a 20m sculpture of a naked woman was erected last week.

Cast in bronze, she holds a sword aloft and stands looking out to sea, apparently in a "modern allegory of truth and justice". Trouble is, half her womb is also hanging out.

"Brilliant," was one local's reaction. "Monstrous," was another's. "I feel very sorry for people who may have to look at it every day," sniffs hotel manager Sue Dale.

This is the work of Damien Hirst, after all. The artist took a shine to this small Devon town a decade ago. Having bought a home here and opened a restaurant, he has made another generous contribution to the local economy. That's one way of looking at it. Another is to see Verity as a typical bit of Hirst willy-waving: an attention-seeking act of narcissism dumped on these guiltless Devonians. After all, what has a pregnant woman with pointy nipples got to do with a West Country fishing village?

And, as we have learned, public art takes a while to get used to.

Take Angel of the North. What benefit could a crude and rust-coloured birdman bring to the Gateshead stretch of the A1? "Bad taste on a vast scale," said some, who thought £800,000 ($1.5 million) could have been better spent. "Angel of Death," chimed others, predicting motorway pile-ups. But opinion has gradually swung behind it, and Antony Gormley's artwork is now credited with prompting the regeneration of Gateshead.

Public art has to be big and bold. The whole point is to get people talking.

"These things tend to grow on people. Over time these sculptures do become symbols of their regions, and replace other symbols or negative images," says Jonathan Banks of Ixia, a public art think-tank organisation. But they can also bring out the worst in a community.

In Shepton Mallet, a roundabout was decorated with concrete sheep by sculptor Jeff Body. But within weeks of being installed in 2005, they were savagely attacked with a hammer. Body soon restored them; and today, they are a much-loved landmark, with their own Facebook Group featuring photos of them wearing woolly hats. Independent

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