Too offensive for the beach: Brighton artist Brian Mander on his controversial art

mander.jpgAn image of four children keeping each other stable, also viewed through other eyes as four children tied together up and threatened by rope. The ambiguity of how we interpret art is surely inherent in what makes it art.

Crossing a line and simply becoming too offensive, particularly to be displayed in a public space, is clearly something several members of the public and local politicians across Sussex have decided has happened in the case of Brian Mander.

A Brighton Fringe award winning artist, Brian Mander believes art which challenges people should be allowed to be displayed in public, and is almost inciting a reaction in his insistence to do so.  He has certainly received some attention as he has attempted to display his work in several seaside towns along the East Sussex coastline.

The piece in question is made up of hundreds of stone statutes of children, with rope around them. Three children are at the base and one standing above. The line into causing offense occurs as some statues appeared to have the rope around the child’s neck, whilst the staging also saw some of the children under the water

Mr Mander recently displayed his work The Tempest, The Shore, on Hastings beach front, but some people took offense to it, leading to it being featured on a regional news programme. After this the art had to be taken down. This has been followed by having to swiftly take the pieces away from the sea front at Tide Mills, Newhaven and a rejection to display it on Seaford seafront.

On the response some people have shown to his work Mr Mander said: “Some people get it but in a low-resolution way, they can’t deal with the threat of it.”

He later added; “I’m glad with the reactions I’m getting because it shows people are engaging with it, emotionally and intellectually.”

He is a softly spoken man but becomes highly animated when discussing his work. There is a palpable excitement whenever the details of the art are discussed, mirrored by the equal frustration at the negative responses it has received.

The death of Mr Mander’s wife ten years ago from cancer, is something which has influenced the art. One example is the cup his wife would use to pump milk has been used as a mold to play a role similar as a bird bath in several of the statues. What to many may seem odd, Mr Mander sees as reflecting nourishment.

Complications with the birth of their son, which led to severe learning difficulties, have impacted the work. He says his experience makes him want to protect children.

Whilst the work is personal, it is also inspired by seeing the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee lying dead in a beach on social media. Mr Mander hopes this makes viewers question our relationship with life and death.

Reactions to the art have been strong. In the debate on whether the art should be allowed in Seaford, Councillor Cheryl White said” I find this traumatic and distasteful, it’s depicting multiple effigies of stillborn babies with their arms chopped off tied up in rope. We’ve got a large group of women who have had still born babies or abortions, I can’t imagine any of them wanting to take fresh air on our beach [if the art was displayed there].”

Councillor Brown added; “it would be quite frightening for children to be faced with that sort of thing.”

Mr Mander responding to comments from a Brighton and Hove councillor’s objection said; “for someone in that position it’s so uncreative and lacking in any understanding.”

Though it’s difficult to look at the pictures and not see the potential to interpret it in the more extreme manner, there is a debate about how much potentially offensive material should be allowed in a public space. Whilst galleries may display potentially offensive work, such as Ai Wei Wei lying flat on a beach, as if dead, the need to display it in public is less clear. In this case local government’s have all arrived at the same conclusion.

With no appropriate home for the art on a beach Mr Mander’s garden is filled with his art, hundreds of statues crowding the patio. This makes it difficult for him to make it around the garden to show his art, climbing through slight gaps as he talks it through.

Mr Mander was formerly an electrician, and the sheer volume of the work he has completed is testament to the enthusiasm and passion he has put into his work as an artist, divisive or not.

The ambiguity of the work seems to extend beyond the viewer. As Mr Mander says, “aspects of this work are still uncertain to me.”

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