by Colin Campbell
WORK is to start this week on the Ness riverside Gathering Place.
As water from the river in spate filled the site planned for the “artwork” scheme yesterday hopes that the hugely controversial project would also be sunk were dashed by an announcement from Highland Council.
Its April Fool’s day timing could not have been more ironic. But this was no risible joke for public amusement. After several years of backlash, protest, prevarication and delay, this was intimation that the much-criticised scheme is finally going ahead.
The wall and concrete pathways plan for a natural beauty spot adjacent to the Ness Islands will cost around £300,000.
More than 3,000 people signed a petition against it, with many fiercely critical and demanding that the unspoilt riverside should be left untouched.
The Gathering Place saga has been ongoing for nearly three years now.
It is being funded by money from the Inverness Common Good Fund (£280,750), Creative Scotland (£305,600) Highland Council (£106,000) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (£66,000). It was launched in June 2017 with the “collaborative artist team” Sans facon.
The Gathering Place concept arose from anger and resentment among a council clique over the rejection of plans for the riverside “Tilting Pier” nearly five years ago.
A close-knit group was determined that something would be built somewhere along the riverside, and when the expensively-commissioned Glasgow artists presented their wall and concrete plan for a grassy area leading down to the river it was seized upon as an “essential” artwork development.
Initial public bemusement that such an uninspiring feature should be classed as “artwork” gave way to intense opposition due to the cost of a project considered wholly unnecessary, and its detrimental impact on the natural beauty of the riverside.
That was ramped up by the transparently ridiculous verbiage attached to it.
Tristan Surtees of Sans façon said: “The Gathering Place project is an occasion to expand and express the qualities of the River Ness for both locals and visitors, developing a collaborative and engaging artwork shaped with and in response to the passion people feel for their river.”
Mr Surtees and his acolytes soon learned that the passion people feel for the river is that it should be left alone.
Professor Jim Mooney, chairman of an “Evaluation Panel”, said: “The Gathering Place, as the name suggests is an attempt at place, making i.e. creating a new civic space for Inverness.” He added: “Public art has a long history of stirring controversy. However, one of the key demands of art is to provoke thought and debate, as much as it is to stimulate the enjoyment of the senses and aesthetically enhance our lives.”
The blinkered professor was unable to recognise that attempts to “stir controversy” in relation to the Ness riverside are the last thing people who enjoy its peace and tranquillity want to hear about.
However, leading councillors like Arts Group chairman Isabelle Mackenzie and Provost Helen Carmichael swatted aside public opposition with their determination to press ahead and concrete over the natural beauty spot.
After months of public anger and opposition the Gathering Place was finally given the go-ahead at a special meeting of the Inverness Area Committee in August 2019.
Chief executive Donna Manson warned at that meeting of the “reputational risk” to the council if it was not built. As we said at the time, the incomer council boss probably had more affinity with the council car park than she did with the Ness riverside. Her focus on the “reputational” risk to the council appeared to exclude all considerations about the scenic and environmental damage it would cause to the riverside.
Isabelle Mackenzie described the wall and concrete pathways as “a unique piece”, and added to the absurdity when she declared: “We are now looking at the finished project, which will be unique and something which can’t be found anywhere else in the world.”
Ms Mackenzie’s wonderment at the global significance of a wall and concrete pathways on the Ness riverside generated only one reaction – derision.
The desperation to hype up the Gathering Place reached new heights, or depths, with yesterday’s announcement, as Provost Carmichael floundered through a laboured and bizarre attempt to link it to the coronavirus.
She said: “Who would have thought, when this centrepiece was commissioned, back in 2017, that the world would have been transformed by a pandemic and human beings prevented from the most basic of interactions – gathering.
“I hope that it will not just be an asset to our city but a place where people will be able to come together to pause and reflect on the joy of human interaction within the amphitheatre of the river.”
She added: “The greatest irony of the Gathering Place is abundantly clear and the fact it is due to be completed as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, provides hope that people can get together once again and celebrate with this unique landmark as a focal point.”
Any attempt at giving the provost the benefit of the doubt in this convoluted claim is overridden by the fact that it is nonsensical.
Her implication that the creation of the riverside wall and concrete will lift morale when virus restrictions are removed, and that it will then be seen as a natural place to “gather” in a “unique new focal point” will only add to the derision poured over this reviled developent.
However, with work due to take 12 weeks while the natural riverside beauty spot is fenced off, torn apart and concreted over, sometime in late June or early July it is Provost Carmichael who will have the unenviable task of formally opening it, perhaps in the company of Isabelle Mackenzie, who will join her atop their wall and declare it “unique in all the world”.
Between now and then the ruination of a beautiful stretch of riverside at vast cost and for no identifiable purpose will be a grim and for some people an upsetting spectacle to behold. We will report on it here as unfolds.
But the Carmichael/Mackenzie opening ceremony when they try and put a gloss on this “artwork” travesty should be an event not to be missed. It may truly deserve to be called “unique”, for all the wrong reasons.