Stephan Balkenhol

Head of a Man / Figure on a Buoy

In and by the River Thames
01 January 1992 - 31 January 1992

In February 1992, German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol placed two figurative sculptures in surprising locations above the River Thames, and in the river itself.

A monumental wooden head was positioned on one of the obsolete bridge pillars spanning the river next to Blackfriars Bridge. Downstream a smaller, life-sized figure was attached to a buoy in the middle of the river.

Like all Balkenhol's sculpture, they were roughly carved in wood and simply coloured. Representing anonymous individuals rather than identifiable public figures, they embodied a contemporary urban condition, the estrangement of the individual within the crowd.

Head of a Man resembled a monumental piece of public sculpture, although it seemed somehow out of place standing on the massive pillar in the river. Constantly bobbing up and down in the water, Figure on Buoy caused a degree of public consternation and considerable media interest. Some members of the public called the emergency services in London to report a man in the river, and one have-a-go hero jumped in to save him. The sculpture was first relocated nearer to the bank and eventually removed.


Image: Stephan Balkenhol's head of a man placed on one obsolete bridge pillar by Blackfriars Bridge, 1992. Photograph: Lisa Harty

Making of a Man / Figure on a Buoy

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Making of a Man / Figure on a Buoy

Stephan Balkenhol


When I was invited by Artangel to participate in the show Doubletake in 1992, I walked through the city, looking for a site for the installation of a sculpture, or an idea for a sculpture. Normally the place - the situation - gives me the idea for sculptures. London is a big capital with a long history, and therefore you find in the streets, on the squares, at houses, bridges, churches a lot of sculptures, which are telling you stories about this history.

It was in vain, looking for an empty spot. I got the impression that every square foot was occupied. I didn't want to add one more sculpture to this crowd of storytellers. 

When I came to the River Thames, I was glad to find this huge and silent space, maybe the only 'empty' space of this size in this town - except for the parks.

This 'natural square' or 'natural avenue' immediately inspired me. When I decided to put a sculpture of a human figure (on a buoy) on the river, I didn't think of telling a story again - I just wanted to create a relation between the sculpture and the river. Maybe also between the river and me. An important point is the scale. I didn't want to make a monumental piece in the physical sense. It may be monumental by the 'smallness' of the sculpture in relation to the river, in relation to nature. The big head on the Blackfriars' Bridge isn't really big when you see it from far away. It is a small head in relation to the whole situation, in relation to the architecture around.

I was surprised by the reactions to my sculptures, especially to the buoy piece. Many people called the river police, telling them that someone was standing on the buoy and that he had asked for rescue. Although the figure could have been identified clearly as a sculpture, I think people didn't want to accept what they saw. They were asking for a story, for a meaning as all the other monuments in London have a meaning. They immediately gave nicknames to the big head. And they invented a story, or different stories for the lonesome man on the buoy. Maybe your mind doesn't allow emptiness or meaninglessness... This irritation may be a necessary part of the game: the vacuum is a challenge which makes you go further.


Image: Stephan Balkenhol's head of a man placed on one obsolete bridge pillar by Blackfriars Bridge, 1992. Photograph: Lisa Harty

Figure on a Buoy

James Lingwood
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Figure on a Buoy

James Lingwood, May 2002


Stephan Balkenhol’s two sculptures for the River Thames came about through a collaboration with the Hayward Gallery in relation to one of their exhibitions called Doubletake, which took as its starting point the idea of collective memory as expressed in contemporary art. Both Stephan and Juan Muñoz were invited to consider the possibility of realising temporary monuments or memorials in the vicinity of the Southbank Centre as a way of reflecting on the relationship between the monument and memory in the modern metropolis.

Stephan realised two projects. One was Head of a Man, a large wooden sculpture, which stood on top of a pier next to Blackfriars’ Bridge. The other one was a sculpture called Figure On A Buoy moored in the River Thames between Hungerford Bridge and Waterloo Bridge. Bobbing up and down, the mobility of the sculpture posed questions about the relationship between stability and fixed meaning, or permanence. Permission from the Port of London Authority was secured – buoys are in mapped positions because of navigational channels. The sculpture was installed. Then the press got hold of it. There appeared to have been a deluge of people either contacting various authorities, some of whom just reporting the existence of this alien object, some complaining, some reporting that there was a figure drowning, or a figure waving …. The police were impatient because of the number of calls they were getting. We managed to persuade them that after the first couple of weeks, the media attention would die down. But a few days after the last discussions with the police and the Port of London Authority some have-a-go hero dived off a river cruiser to rescue the sculpture, and of course then he had to be rescued, at which point we were compelled to make its status a little less ambiguous. It was relocated onto a kind of pontoon. The original idea of the work was predicated on its vulnerability – this figure out there in the middle of the river – and its mobility. It didn’t look right away from its buoy, and we agreed to take it down.


Image: Figure on a Buoy floating in the middle of the Thames amongst the river traffic. Photograph: Lisa Harty

Press

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One [Londoner] even leapt into the river reportedly shouting "Don't jump" and had to be recused himself by the River Police, while the wooden statue looked on unmoved. – Robin Stringer, Evening Standard

Selected Press

One [Londoner] even leapt into the river reportedly shouting "Don't jump" and had to be recused himself by the River Police, while the wooden statue looked on unmoved. – Robin Stringer, Evening Standard, 28 February, 1992

He seems both watchful and oblivious, a man transfixed. Downpours and river mists, gales and frosts do not deter him. Brown fogs of winter dawns driftig into lilac-time; and then, one fine day, he's gone. – Adrian Searle, Freeze, Spring 1992

Out on the Thames, meanwhile, Stephan Balkenhol's shirt-sleeved wooden figure, a commuter Canute, lurches against current and tide. – William Feaver, Observer, 23 February 1992

Balkenhol appears to be striving for the anonymity of Everyman - even if the statuesque form he adopts here was used in the past to dignify effigies of the famous. – Richard Cork, Life & Times, 28 February 1992

Balkenhol has installed a life-like figure of a man, bobbing on a buoy in the Thames... we know some poor ignorant sucker almost drowned trying to rescue him. Sure we feel guilty, but we have to laugh. – Charles Hall

In fact for those with 20:20 vision in bright sunshine this is not a mass-murderer about to commit suicide but an outdoor scultpture by Stephen Balkenhol... – Peter Fleissig, City Limits, February-March 1992

About the artist

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Stephan Balkenhol

Stephan Balkenhol studied sculpture at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg. He now lives and works Meisenthal, France and Karlsruhe, Germany where, since 1992, he has been Professor at the Akademie für Bildende Künste, having taught previously at Kunsthochschule Hamburg and Städelschule, Frankfurt. As an artist he is best known for his human figures and heads carved out of wooden blocks using traditional tools. He has exhibited internationally and continues to have solo exhibitions regularly as well as participating in group exhibitions, recently at Museum of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, ARCO 08, Madrid and Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris.


Image: Portrait of the artist Stephan Balkenhol. Photograph: Hpschaefer 

Credits

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Who made this possible?

Credits

Head of a Man / Figure on a Buoy was commissioned by Artangel in association with the Southbank Centre as part of the exhibition Doubletake: Collective Memory and Current Art at the Hayward Gallery,  20 February - 19 April 1992.

Artangel is generously supported by Arts Council England, and by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial Angels and The Company of Angels.


 

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