This bronze sculpture is a cast of a pair of slender upright columns of approximately human height – one straight and supportive, the other narrower, lithe and slightly bowed – braced together at two points along their lengths. Accompanied by a small commemorative plaque bearing the work’s title, the columns stand atop a low, rectangular pedestal resting on the floor. The source of the sculpture is a sapling and stake originally found in Burgess Park, an urban green space planted in the 1980s between several council estate blocks in south-east London. Despite the work’s named specificity, such plantings can be found interrupting the concrete pavements of many Western shopping centres and public squares as a result of beautification schemes and other progressive postwar policies, which introduced natural elements to relieve the homogeneity of the urban environment. The sapling is an emblem of civic idealism, fostered by liberal housing authorities, developers and architects, and projected into an abundant future in which trunk and branches will be fully-grown.
As indicated by the violence of its title, Coventry’s sculpture commemorates the moment when the sapling was struck by vandals, its trunk and support having snapped at a point beyond which regeneration is impossible. Burgess Park is thus both readymade and monument, a complex object of the social tumult present in the artist’s immediate working environment and a measure of the divide between social reality and ungraspable urban utopia. Displayed in the space of an art gallery at a remove from its ruined and long-uprooted source, the material and organic figure of Coventry’s sculpture inherit a modernist tradition from Constantin Brancusi and Joan Miró to Eduardo Paolozzi. At the same time, the work carries a dystopian echo of 1960s conceptual earthworks which intervened directly into the extant environment as site, source and material, and provides a disturbingly direct counter to romantic postmodern projects such as Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen). Begun in 1982 and realised in 1987, 7000 Oaks called for the planting of seven thousand oak trees in Kassel, Germany, on the occasion of Documenta 7.
Burgess Park is typically shown alongside a second sculpture by Coventry also in Tate’s collection, Queens Road SE15, Planted 1988, Destroyed 1992 (Tate T12298), executed in the same manner and same year from a companion sapling in the nearby area. Sharing an exhibition space, the two works subtly represent a density and incidence of disquietude in their plurality. Coventry’s painting and sculptural works from the 1990s often directly reflect contemporary social conditions in London through an exploration of modernist aesthetic conventions, variously enriching and undermining an abstract language of form. For example his Looted Shop Front from 1995 – a full bronze cast of a window smashed during the Brixton Riots of the same year – highlights the social disorder of the post-Thatcher era and, placed against the wall, also frames a perspective on representations of space and scale in painting.
Though his artistic production developed to encompass and critique further aspects of British society and culture after the 1990s, Coventry recouped his direct reference of urban space for a third sapling work from 2009, Yorkshire Road E14, Planted 1998, Destroyed 2000, originally set in east London.
Iwona Blazwick, ‘Vandal’, Keith Coventry, exhibition catalogue, The Showroom, London 1997, reproduced no.3, p.17.
Vanishing Certainties: Keith Coventry: Painting and Sculpture, 1992–2009, exhibition catalogue, Haunch of Venison, London 2009, reproduced p.73.