Review of The Kelpies
By: Michael A. Arnold
Rising out of small pools of water, above a larger pool of water, the image of two giant horse heads reach into sky. They look solid from a distance, but as you walk up from the lazy, thin river, stuffed with barges and canal boats lolling in the gentle water, you begin to see sparks of sunlight shining through the steel. Looking through them while standing at their base, the sunlight almost looks like little droplets of water all over them.
That is what standing beside the Kelpies in Falkirk, Scotland is like, a sculpture of two horse heads, designed by the Scottish artist Andy Scott and completed in 2013. One head is looking upwards toward the sky, the other looking down toward the earth. Like any piece of public art, is not uncommon to see people all around it, taking pictures or picnicking in the shadow sight of this piece, and on a bright, warm day it is difficult to deny the power The Kelpies are able to project.
As has been suggested a few times by this column, art does not have to be traditional paintings or sculptures in a gallery, to be admired by an elite audience in an elite environment. Some kinds of art is public and very grand in scope, like this or the previously discussed Angel of the North in Gateshead, England - these huge sculptures like are easy to admire from a distance but are even more impressive when they are seen up close. Often they are supposed to be symbols for the place they are in, and they also dominate their landscape so much that after a while it is difficult to think of their locations without them. To give another example, the Statue of Liberty in New York is now a representation on the city, and it is a symbol of a new life in a new world.
The Kelpies are the same, they are representing the area of Falkirk, not far from Scotland’s capital of Edinburgh. Each horse head weighs about 300 tons of steel each, and stand 30 meters high, were made from individual sheets of steel that have been riveted together but leaving gaps between the sheets of steel; this is what causes the sun to shine light through them when you are standing close. When seen from a distance the figures seem fairly solid, but this is in a sense a kind of deception like the mythological creatures they were inspired by.
As a work of art, they are trying to evoke two things simultaneously, the mythological and the historical. Areas like Falkirk were once engines of industrialization, and a major part of the productive center of the British Empire. With all the industry and manufacturing needed to keep an empire running, the steel and coal that was transported along canals like that on the Forth and Clyde canal (the small river mentioned before) was vital. It was canals like these that kept the cogs turning during those heady, turbulent, and now (in their own way) mythologized times.
This is all very fitting, as the Kelpies take their name from a mysterious mythological, shape shifting creature in Scottish folklore. Kelpies of mythology were often depicted as black horses that rise out of the shorelines of lochs (basically a lake) and the seas around Scotland to pray on any humans that come too close to the water.
Sometimes they take other forms, and they can even turn into humans, but it always seems like either their original form or their preferred form is of a black horse. They were so notorious that Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, said in his 1786 poem ‘Address to the Devil’ that they were the servants of Satan:
water-kelpies haunt the Foord
By your direction
An' nighted trav'llers are allur'd
To their destruction.
The Kelpies of this piece of art are, thankfully, safe to approach - but this intertwining of mythologies is interesting to think about.
However, there is also a secondary meaning here too. As mentioned before: one of the heads is pointed toward the earth, and the other has its head lifted toward the sky. It is as if the artist is kind of saying that the area, and also by extension the rest of Scotland, is living between two worlds – the world of fancy and mythology and the world of real, material things. There may even be a touch of happiness or sadness as a contrast here too – or the past and the future since the two horse heads are pointing in opposite directions. Andy Scott himself has said that the reason they were built out of steel specifically and placed right next to the Forth and Clyde Canal was as a reminder of Scotland’s industrial past.
The head looking down can also look down on you as you walk around, and it is in a sense judging you. But the other head is pointed at the sky, or the stars. Using our technology and industry we can look out, at the space beyond our world and create our own dreams and mythologies around space travel and progress too. If the Kelpie looking down is a warning, the one looking up is suggestive of humanities’ more noble goals to look up at the heavens.
But The Kelpies are very much open to interpretation, and there should not be any definite interpretation of them. They are, like a lot of really great art, suggestive of and emblematic of many different things. But they really should be approached and seen (especially in person) knowing something of both the industrial and mythological background they were built to reflect before they are fully appreciated as the great piece of modern public art that they are.