Paris, 29 January 2014, Art Media Agency (AMA).
Public art is designed to engage people in their surroundings. A visual installation acts as a bridge, connecting the public to the space around them. Traditionally reserved for commemorative statues and memorials in town centres, the domain of public art developed after the 1960s civil rights movements, when people began to claim urban spaces as their own. The regeneration of built-up areas after the Second World War placed more of a value on public space, reworking sculpture from merely a decorative addition to a space to something which defined it, unified people, and appealed to the greater social interest. Artists such as Henry Moore became prominent producers of public art, combining the broader social desire to return to rationality with a refined abstraction, and as such Moore was viewed as “the voice of British sculpture” following the war. In recent years, the sphere has developed into a thought-provoking art form which constantly challenges the boundaries of space to ask questions about community, our relationship to each other, our place within our environment, and what constitutes art. Today, public art continues to spark fierce debate across all realms of society.
Art installations increasingly use innovative new techniques to involve people in the form. In 2009, Antony Gormley’s project One & Other invited members of the public to occupy the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square for an hour each, transfiguring the spectator into the artwork. The 2,400 “living sculptures” did everything from campaigning for rights for disabled people to posing naked, providing the civilian with a literal platform and thus blurring the lines between art and everyday life. In a less intrusive manner, Anish Kapoor’s 2006 sculpture Cloud Gate also makes the spectator part of both the artwork and the environment around them. This giant, mirrored, bean-shaped piece reflects and distorts the viewer in the foreground and the Chicago skyline in the background, making the artwork seem boundless, endless. The sculpture’s popularity with visitors, who come to take kind of hall-of-mirrors style photos in its surface, confirms its success.
Public art also now extends to city-wide events designed to animate both residents and tourists alike. The French city of Lyon’s Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights), which takes place in December every year, stemmed from an ancient Lyonnais tradition of celebrating the Virgin Mary. Now, with its roots firmly in history, the festival is an annual occasion to exhibit ephemeral art installations around the city. Around 3 million visitors come to the four-day event every year to see illuminated buildings, light shows, neon pieces and video projections. All projects are chosen with the vision to connect people to the city of Lyon and its history, through the celebration of the medium of light. Another city-wide event is Paris’s famous Nuit Blanche, taking place on the first Saturday of October each year. As well as specially-commissioned programmes throughout the city, its museums and galleries stay open all night. In this way, the entire capital becomes a kind of public art exhibition, its revered monuments a kind of common property, belonging to the spectator. A carefully curated public involvement as seen in these events lends to their success, as the lines are blurred between who is the centrepiece – the art, or the people.
Another way in which public art seeks to connect people to their surroundings is to reconfigure space. To give a new function to an area, or to get the public to see it in a new light, is a clever technique used by artists and councils. New York City’s celebrated High Line is a perfect example of this. Inspired by Paris’s similar Promenade Plantée project, the High Line is a 1-mile elevated park built along the old New York Central Railroad. Various art installations along the stretch of viaducts have transformed an old industrial site into an artistic and architectural innovation. Artists to have had works featured along the High Line include George Condo, Frank Benson, David Shrigley and duo Gilbert & George. The park presents commissions, performances, installations, video programmes and billboard-sized artworks along its route, which are renewed every few months. Since its opening in 2009, the High Line has become both a tourist attraction and a symbol for the gentrification of the surrounding Meatpacking District. Contemporary art here has been taken out of museums and institutions and given back to the street, and it is this dialogue between the city, the art and the wider urban landscape that makes the High Line such a success.
The reforming of historical places into artistic sites is no more potent than in Germany, in the art that extends along the old Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery, as it is known, is a 0.8-mile section of the Berlin Wall comprising 105 paintings by international artists. The space functions both as a memorial for political freedom and as what is possibly the world’s largest open-air gallery. Works by Jim Avignon, Thierry Noir, Bodo Sperling and Dmitri Vrubel, amongst others, reversed the Wall’s original purpose of restricting an area to the public – instead, this space now firmly belongs to the people of Berlin.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of art’s claim on public space is the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the married couple whose work involved the wrapping of monuments. In wrapping Paris’s Pont Neuf bridge and the Reichstag in Berlin, the fabric kept the main outline of the buildings’ shape whilst exaggerating their details and proportions. A covered place was significantly changed, whilst remaining the same underneath. When it appeared in 1985, The Pont Neuf Wrapped attracted 3 million visitors.
Returning once again to Antony Gormley, the sculptor’s permanent installation of 100 human figures on Crosby Beach, just outside of Liverpool, UK, redefined a seascape into a giant public artwork. The life-size cast iron sculptures – collectively called Another Place – are cast from the artist’s own body, spread over a 2-mile stretch of sand, all gazing out towards the Irish Sea. At high tide the majority of these human figures are submerged by water, to be revealed again later in the day. Gormley said of the works: “When I have been down on the beach myself, the majority of people have been intrigued, amused, sometimes very moved.” The statues’ claim on a public, common space caused some health and safety concerns, with authorities concerned that visitors might become stuck in soft sand: the beach has nevertheless become a major tourist attraction.
Another public art project by Antony Gormley, Event Horizon, caused a severe headache for police when it was mounted in London in 2007. This time, 31 life-size replicas of the artist’s body were erected on the tops of buildings in locations around the capital, designed to prompt people to stop, look up and mirror the statues’ stillness. Several members of the public, however, mistook the figures for would-be suicide attempts, and the police were subsequently bombarded with telephone calls. The installation, since exhibited in New York, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, seems to have fulfilled Gormley’s wish to “play with the city and the people’s perceptions”.
One of the first and most notorious public art controversies was Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. Installed in 1981 in Manhattan’s Foley Plaza. Tilted Arc was a post-minimalist, site-specific sculpture which physically divided the plaza in two. A giant steel panel that appeared to jut out of the ground, the artwork was designed to make the viewer aware of their movement through the space – which, to a certain extent, was achieved, due to the numerous complaints about blocked access.
Just months after its insertion in the plaza, over 1,300 workers in the vicinity had signed a petition for its removal. However, Serra insisted: “It is a site-specific work and as such is not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work.” Designed specifically to reconfigure the space around it, Tilted Arc would cease to exist in its true capacity if it were exhibited anywhere else, he argued. Despite prominent artists such as Philip Glass, Keith Haring and Claes Oldenburg campaigning in favour of the work remaining in place, the sculpture was voted to be removed in 1989 by a jury who voted 4-1. It remains the artist’s wish that the work not be installed elsewhere, and therefore the steel sculpture has remained in a storage facility since its removal. The controversy surrounding Tilted Arc raises questions about public art’s sense of belonging to a place – and whether an artist’s vision is more important than the people’s approval.
No stranger to controversy, Damien Hirst’s latest public sculptures, unveiled in Doha in October 2013, have also been widely contested. A series of 14 monumental bronze sculptures, depicting human gestation from conception to birth, was commissioned by Sheikha al Mayassa, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, to sit outside the Sidra Medical and Research Centre. Entitled The Miraculous Journey (2005 to 2013), the series challenges Muslim taboo in its depiction of the human form. Despite the artworks’ obvious connection to the immediate space around them (the Sidra Medical and Research Centre specialises in women’s and children’s health), it is their wider situation within the Islamic framework of Qatar that has created dialogue here. Sheikha al Mayassa believes “it’s important to have an ongoing conversation”, but Hirst’s foetuses beg to ask how much public art is created to provoke discussion, and how much it is created for the people for which it serves.
Sometimes public art can go severely wrong. In July 2006, Dreamspace by Maurice Agis, an interactive, inflatable artwork that viewers could go inside, was torn from its moorings and carried 30ft into the air by a sudden gust of wind, killing two women in what has since been described as a freak accident. The work, made of colourful plastic sheets arranged in the form of a maze, had been touring Europe at the time. Agis had explained that his idea behind it was to make art accessible to ordinary people, offering them “a release from the chaos and fragmentation of the senses in daily urban life”. The artist was haunted by the tragedy of the event until his death in 2009, never creating a work on such a large scale again.
Another inflatable creation that has left the public feeling somewhat deflated has been Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck. Presented with the view of “spreading joy around the world”, the duck, which weighs over 600kg, has deflated twice and even exploded once on its international tour. The duck burst just hours away from New Year’s Eve celebrations in the northern Taiwan port of Keelung, leaving spectators with nothing more than a floating yellow disc. Nevertheless, the replica of the famous bath-time toy has proved popular with people the world over, with one girl commenting to Agence France Presse, “It takes me back to my childhood memories,” – another saying, “It has a message for peace but for me it’s just fun.” The artist has explained his reasoning behind the public work: “It’s about connecting people, don’t take life for granted, your urban space for granted. You walk every day the same route to work, but look and stop going too fast.”
Florentijn Hofman’s rubber duck philosophy seems to encapsulate the purpose of public art. Whilst the domain will always continue to incite controversy and debate due to its highly visible – and even invasive nature – its core value remains to connect people to the space around them. If redefining that space triggers a response, whether positive or negative, then public art might be considered to have succeeded in its purpose.