What I love most about the seaside is that there’s always something unexpected to be discovered. A weekend trip to South Shields saw me stumbling across a group of 22 strange sculptures close to Littlehaven Beach.
Juan Muñoz’s Conversation Piece greets bemused visitors and families as they head down to the beach with their buckets and spades.
South Shields beach is not the place you’d expect to find a major work by a top international artist on a site tucked between the car park, the harbour wall and sand dunes. But it’s a great discovery if you’re an art lover or simply a curious beachcomber.
Culture on the coast
Created by the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz in 1999, each of the 22 bronze figures is approximately 1.5 metres high and weighs around a quarter of a ton.
Like Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North in nearby Gateshead, the figures are located on a gateway route into Tyneside, providing a strong sense of place.
South Shields lies at the entrance to the River Tyne, and these enigmatic figures welcome visitors from both the land and sea beyond.
The surreal sight of these rotund, Munchkin-like characters is a bit of a shock if you’re a first-time visitor.
As I walked through the art works, I felt as if I was eavesdropping on the mysterious figures who seem to be having some sort of conversation. The positions, expressions and gestures of the figures provide clues as to what is being said.
The artist Juan Muñoz believed that a walk down a street or, in this case, a coastal path, became a performance or game. He wanted to reveal the enigma of the simplest human gestures with his trademark choreographed groups.
“The way people react to the piece and the way they pass between them is very important” – Juan Muñoz.
Locals refer to the dwarf-sized figures as the ‘Weebles’ or ‘ the wobbly men’. I’m told that the “weebles” are named after the popular 1970s toy which had the memorable slogan – “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”.
The first thing many people do on seeing the figures is to push them to see if they wobble on their bases.
Personally, I can’t understand the wobbly nickname – although the figures are 1.5 metres high, they weigh a quarter of a tonne each. At that bulky weight, they cannot be budged, unless you’re Superman.
‘Conversation Piece’ is supposed to be a play on the 18th Century genre of painting featuring an informal social gathering, such as a card game, tea party or musical recital.
Muñoz’s figures are arranged in small scattered groups, but despite being spread out, they seem to be conversing with each other.
They also form a topic of conversation to passing walkers, who can be heard asking each other, “What do you think they are talking about?”.
I was amused to see how the local dogs responded to the sculptures. Some sniffed them and darted away in fear, others were mesmerised by their strange forms, and a few pretended to ignore them completely.
Juan Muñoz is often described as an outsider so it’s fitting that his figures should have found a home in South Shields, many hundreds of miles from his home country of Spain.
He was a fierce critic of the Spanish cultural institutions and was fearless in his public pronouncements. No wonder he was never the darling of the establishment in Spain.
Although he lived and worked outside Madrid, he made his career elsewhere in Europe and North America.
His detachment as an artist meant that Muñoz had an eye for human relationships, an outsider looking in on the ‘in crowd’ or local community.
It’s also intriguing to learn that Muñoz was colour-blind and perhaps it’s no surprise that his figures tend to be monochromatic, dressed in grey or black.
Critics have described Muñoz as a “post-conceptual, post-narrative” sculptor. But I’d agree with the artist himself. Muñoz called himself “a storyteller.” All of his works tell a compelling story, sometimes shrouded in mystery or an enigmatic happening.
The placement of the figures, close to each other or apart at a distance, speaks volumes about human relationships. Muñoz’s art is powerful because he creates a tension between the illusory and the real, and the isolation of the individual amongst a crowd.
I remember being blown away by Muñoz’s Tate Modern retrospective a few years ago. There were figures in tight-knit groups, pairs of figures, and solitary people, detached from the crowd.
There was a strong sense of the dynamic within human groups but the artist was equally at home depicting the loneliness of individuals and their social isolation.
One of my favourite of his gallery works – The Wasteland – is a ventriloquist’s dummy, perched over a large, patterned abstract floor.
Unnerving and surreal, the work had a profound influence on film maker David Lynch’s Twin Peaks who used the ideas in a scene in one of the episodes of his groundbreaking TV drama.
At South Shields, the poignant figures stand, sometimes with eyes closed or looking into the distance, in a strange, unnerving silence, reminiscent of a silent movie.
Having seen the ‘silent’ South Shields works, I was surprised to learn that Juan Muñoz was interested in sound, especially the possibilities offered by radio.
In later works, some of the artist’s figures were fitted with animatronic devices to enable a figure sitting alone on a bench or standing looking into the distance to mouth silent words.
One of his radio works involved a collaboration with the composer Gavin Bryars in the early 1990s. A Man In A Room Gambling involved Muñoz explaining card tricks and sleights of hand to a soundtrack by Bryars. The work was performed live at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in London – a strange event which I would have loved to have seen.
Not all of Muñoz’s figures are as passive as those on South Shields beach. I remember seeing his scary one-on-one figures at an exhibition in Boston a few years ago (see above).
These figures were aggressive and animated, a far cry from many of his works, proof that Muñoz was no one-trick artist.
Sadly, we’ll never know how Muñoz’s work would have developed. He died tragically young of a heart attack on holiday in Ibiza in 2001. But his legacy lives on in his surreal figures.
Why not discover them for yourself? Even if you’re baffled by them, there are definitely a talking point, especially on a trip to the beach. Fall in love with the wobbly weebles!
Tammy Tour Guide – Conversation Piece – South Shields
Juan Munoz’s Conversation Piece in South Shields is located near the beach at Littlehaven in South Tyneside in the North East of England.
South Shields is a 20 minute Metro ride away from Newcastle upon Tyne with frequent services throughout the day and at weekends. It’s a brisk 12 minute walk from South Shields town centre.
The nearest local landmark is the Little Haven Hotel and there’s a large car park area next to the beach if you’re travelling by private transport.
Whilst you’re visiting the beach at South Shields, take a walk on its golden sands and then walk along the pier to the Groyne Lighthouse. Why not join the locals – known as ‘Sanddancers’ – as they take their weekend promenade along the sea front.
From this great vantage point, you can see the ships and ferries coming and going through the mouth of the River Tyne.
On a clear day you can see far out to sea, watch the boats coming in, and even enjoy the sight of dolphins frolicking in the waters at the mouth of the Tyne.