I’ve long considered what material traces exist that attempt to capture early 21st-century civic and metropolitan identities, ones that articulate and perpetuate a city and its suburbs as different from elsewhere. One answer is its holy places – including cathedrals – endure as foci of worship and commemoration for a few, but serve as enduring monuments to civic pride and identity, regardless of faith. Another might be public art: the range of subjects and forms that speak of the city’s present and past. A further artistic strategy that we see in the early 21st century is a particular artistic ‘brand’: a replicated icon that can remind you spatially (territorially?) and thematically (as each one is rendered individual to commemorate a specific dimension of a city’s past). In this third kind, I’m not simply talking about logos of municipal authorities, but artistic expressions that come to say ‘us all’ or ‘we’ for a particular region or locality.
Liverpool and Merseyside have all three of these dimensions. Regarding the third, they have the superlambanas in particular. They are readily recognisable, memorable, odd, international sculptures. The original tropical fruit/ovine hybrid ‘superlambanana’ was created for the ArtTransPennine Exhibition of 1998 by Japanese artist Tara Chiezo. This one piece was conceived of as mobile: to be regularly translated around the city. It is currently still a landmark sculpture.
Yet the superlambanas went ‘viral’. The original scuplture was replicated by smaller scale superlambananas constructed a decade later: Go Superlambanas! This was an art and media event which took place in 2009 as part of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture celebrations. One hundred and twenty-four 2m-high replicas were created and established around the city and Merseyside more broadly. Furthermore, two were placed outside the region: one on the top of Moel Famau on the Clwydian Range (Denbighshire) – this is a popular walkers’ destination for Merseysiders – and another at London Euston railway station from whence one departs to reach Liverpool . There was a blog created to engage people with these monuments, all identical in form, but decorated and named to connect to specific themes. Most were then auctioned off but some were placed elsewhere around the city and region.
In 2010, new superlambananas were installed on The Strand, and later moved to the Museum of Liverpool. They seem to be regularly (how often I don’t know) with new thematic liveries.
When I last saw them in 2018, there was even a centenary First World War superlambanana adorned with poppies: icons on an icon: the seemingly traditional mode of war memorialisation daubed onto an artistic hybrid. Another commemorated the docks and ocean connections of the city, while a further one commemorates successful pop/rock bands from the region.
Another two had wildlife/insect themes:
This strategy of creating a shared form but each one personalised with a different commemorative subject or theme, has been replicated elsewhere. In my region, I’m aware of the Wrexham sheep and the 2010 Chester rhinos, each painted to capture distinctive strands in the history of the place and region (in the case of Wrexham) as well as wider topics (for the rhinos). Indeed Liverpool itself has revisited the concept with penguin sculptures in 2010, some of which still survive as with one at Lime Street metro station.
When heading to Liverpool airport by train recently, I reflected on the odd situation that one knows when one is approaching the borderland of Merseyside by spotting a pair of superlambanas. On Runcorn railway station, two superlambanas guard the apporaches to Merseyside, articulating the city’s newly found artistic icon, even if on the ‘wrong side’ of the Mersey. One is a riverine superlambana, depicting the prominent landmark crossing the Mersey: the Runcorn railway bridge.
So the superlambananas are a modern sculptural replicant which collectively have come to articulate the region’s identity, and broader themes of interest and concern in contemporary culture, including the hybridity of things and people. This might be seen as apposite for a modern British multicultural city. From another perspective, they only give the allusion of being modern, since all manner of themes in 20th-century history, and far older connections of people and place, can be painted onto them. Moreover, at Runcorn and perhaps elsewhere, the superlambanas mark territories and thresholds as ones moves towards, or departs from, Merseyside. At that early morning moment gazing out of the window onto Runcorn station platform, the superlambananas spoke to me and they said: ‘yes, you’re heading for Liverpool and there’s no going back’.