Public Art

Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks

Public art is art in any media that has been planned and executed with the intention of being staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. Public signifies a working practice of site specificity, community involvement and collaboration.

Public art may include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings, but the relationship between the content and audience, what the art is saying and to whom, is just as important if not more important than its physical location.

Professor of Art History Cher Krause Knight states, ‘at its most public, art extends opportunities for community engagement but cannot demand particular conclusion,’ it introduces social ideas but leaves room for the public to come to their own conclusions. Such cultural interventions have often been realized in response to creatively engaging a community’s sense of ‘place’ or ‘well-being’ in society.

Monuments, memorials and civic statuary are perhaps the oldest and most obvious form of officially sanctioned public art, although it could be said that architectural sculpture and even architecture itself is more widespread and fulfills the definition of public art. Independent artwork, created and installed without being officially sanctioned is ubiquitous in nearly all cities. It is also installed in natural settings, and can include works such as sculpture, or may be short-lived, such as a precarious rock balance or an ephemeral instance of colored smoke. Some has been installed underwater, such as Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park in the Caribbean sea off the west coast of Grenada, West Indies, a collection of concrete figures installed by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor.

Permanent works are sometimes integrated with architecture and landscaping in the creation or renovation of buildings and sites, an especially important example being the program developed in the new city of Milton Keynes, England in 1967. Public art is not confined to physical objects; dance, street theater, and even poetry have proponents that specialize in public art.

Some artists working in this discipline use the freedom afforded by an outdoor site to create very large works that would be unfeasible in a gallery, for instance Richard Long’s three-week walk, entitled ‘The Path is the Place in the Line,’ a 250-mile walk in the Sierra Nevada mountains, mainly along the Pacific Crest Trail. The exhibition included photographs, mud works, sculpture, and texts. In a similar example, sculptor Gar Waterman created a giant arch straddling a city street in New Haven, Connecticut.

Among the works of the last thirty years that have met greatest critical and popular acclaim are pieces by Christo, who in the 1972 ‘Valley Curtain’ project, hung a 400-meter-long cloth across Rifle Gap, a valley in the Rocky Mountains near Rifle, Colorado. In 2016, he and his wife and partner Jeanne-Claude completed ‘The Floating Piers,’ consisting of 70,000 square meters of yellow fabric, carried by a modular floating dock system of 226,000 high-density polyethylene cubes installed at Lake Iseo near Brescia, Italy. The fabric created a walkable surface between Sulzano, Monte Isola and the island of San Paolo.

Other artists known for work at that reacts to or incorporates its environment include Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Andy Goldsworthy, James Turrell and Antony Gormley. Artists making public art range from the greatest masters such as Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró, to those who specialize in public art such as Claes Oldenburg and Pierre Granche, to anonymous artists who make surreptitious interventions.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Africa Centre presents the Infecting the City Public Art Festival. Its curatorial mandate is to create a week-long platform for public art – whether it be visual or performative artworks, or artistic interventions – that shake up the city spaces and allows the city’s users to view the cityscapes in new and memorable ways. The Infecting the City Festival believes that public art should be freely accessible to everybody in a public space.

In the 1930s, the production of national symbolism implied by 19th century monuments starts being regulated by long-term national programs with propaganda goals (Federal Art Project, United States; Cultural Office, Soviet Union). Programs like President Roosevelt’s New Deal facilitated the development of public art during the Great Depression but was wrought with propaganda goals. New Deal art support programs intended to develop national pride in American culture while avoiding addressing the faltering economy that said culture was built upon. Although problematic, New Deal programs such as FAP (Federal Art Project) altered the relationship between the artist and society by making art accessible to all people. The New Deal program Art-in-Architecture (A-i-A) developed percent for art programs, a structure for funding public art still utilized today where a fee, usually some percentage of the project cost, is placed on large scale development projects to pay for public art. This program gave one half of one percent of total construction costs of all government buildings to purchase contemporary American art for that structure. A-i-A helped solidify the principle that public art in the US should be truly owned by the public.

This notion of public art radically changes during the 1970s, following up to the civil rights movement’ claims on the public space, the alliance between urban regeneration programs and artistic interventions at the end of the 1960s and the revision of the notion of sculpture. In this context, public art acquires a status which goes beyond mere decoration and visualization of official national histories in public space, therefore gaining autonomy as a form of site construction and intervention in the realm of public interests. Public art became much more about the public. This change of perspective is also present by the reinforcement of urban cultural policies in these same years, for example the New York-based Public Art Fund (1977) and several urban or regional Percent for Art programs in the United States and Europe. Moreover, the re-centring of public art discourse from a national to a local level is consistent with the site-specific turn and the critical positions against institutional exhibition spaces emerging in contemporary art practices since the 1960s.

Land artists choose to situate large-scale, process-oriented interventions in remote landscape situations; the Spoleto Festival (1962) creates an open-air museum of sculptures in the medieval city of Spoleto, and the German city of Münster starts, in 1977, a curated event bringing art in public urban places every 10 years (Skulptur Projekte Münster). In the group show When Attitudes Become Form, the exhibition situation is expanded in the public space by Michael Heizer and Daniel Buren’s interventions; architectural scale emerges in the work of artists such as Donald Judd as well as in Gordon Matta-Clark’s temporary interventions in dismissed urban buildings.

Between the 1970s and the 1980s, gentrification and ecological issues surface in public art practices both as a commission motive and as a critical focus brought in by artists. The individual, Romantic retreat element implied in the conceptual structure of Land art and its will to reconnect the urban environment with nature, is turned into a political claim in projects such as ‘Wheatfield – A Confrontation’ (1982), by American artist Agnes Denes, a two-acre wheatfield in downtown Manhattan, as well as in Joseph Beuys’ ‘7000 Oaks’ (1982), 7,000 oak planted trees over several years in Kassel, Germany, each with an accompanying basalt stone. Both projects focus on the raise of ecological awareness through a green urban design process. In recent years, programs of green urban regeneration aiming at converting abandoned lots into green areas regularly include public art programs. This is the case of High Line Art, 2009, a commission program for the High Line, a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park, greenway and rail trail created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan in New York City; and of Gleisdreieck, 2012, an urban park derived from the partial reconversion of a railway station in Berlin, which hosts an open-air contemporary art exhibition.

The 1980s also witness the institutionalisation of sculpture parks as curated programs. While the first public and private open-air sculpture exhibitions and collections dating back to the 1930s aim at creating an appropriate setting for large-scale sculptural forms difficult to show in museum galleries, experiences such as Noguchi’s garden in Queens, New York (1985) state the necessity of a permanent relationship between the artwork and its site.

This line also develops in Donald Judd’s project for the Chinati Foundation (1986) in Texas, advocating for the permanent nature of large-scale installations, which fragility may be destroyed when re-locating the work. The trial instructed by judge Edward D. Re in 1985 to re-locate American artist Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc,’ a monumental intervention commissioned for Manhattan’s Federal Plaza by the ‘Art-in-Architecture’ Program, also contributes to the debate about public art site-specificity. In his line of defense for the trial, Richard Serra claims: ”Tilted Arc’ was commissioned and designed for one particular site: Federal Plaza. It is a site-specific work and as such not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work.’ The trial around ‘Tilted Arc’ shows the essential role played by site-specificity in public art. Moreover, one of the arguments brought into the trial by judge Edward D. Re is the intolerance of the community of users of the Federal Plaza towards Serra’s intervention and the support of the art community, represented by art critic Douglas Crimp’s testimony. In both cases, the audience positions itself as a major factor of the artistic intervention in public space. Within this context, the definition of public art comes to include artistic projects focusing on public issues (democracy, citizenship, integration); participative artistic actions involving the community; artistic projects commissioned and/or funded by a public body, within the Percent for Art schemes, or by a community.

In the 1990s, the clear differentiation of these new practices from previous forms of artistic presence in the public space calls for alternative definitions, some of them more specific (contextual art, relational art, participatory art, dialogic art, community-based art, activist art), other more comprehensive, such as ‘new genre public art.’

In this way, public art functions as a social intervention. Artists became fully engaged in civic activism by the 1970s and many adopted a pluralist approach to public art. This approach eventually developed into the ‘new genre public art,’ which is defined by Suzanne Lacy, professor at the USC Roski School of Art and Design, as ‘socially engaged, interactive art for diverse audiences with connections to identity politics and social activism.’ Rather than metaphorically discussing social issues, as did previous public art, practitioners of the ‘new genre’ wanted to explicitly empower marginalized groups, all while maintaining aesthetic appeal. Curator Mary Jane Jacob of ‘Sculpture Chicago’ developed a show, ‘Culture in Action,’ in summer 1993 that followed principles of new genre public art. The show intended to investigate social systems though audience participatory art, engaging especially with audiences that typically did not participate in traditional art museums. While controversial, ‘Culture in Action’ introduced new models for community participation and interventionist public art that reaching beyond the ‘new genre.’

Earlier groups also used public art as an avenue for social intervention. In the 1960s and 70s, the artist collective Situationist International created work that ‘challenged the assumptions of everyday life and its institutions’ through physical intervention. Another artists collective interested in social intervention, Guerrilla Girls, started in the 1980s and persists today. Their public art exposes latent sexism and works to deconstruct male power structures in the art world. Currently, they also address racism in the art world, homelessness, AIDS, and rape culture.

Making visible issues of public concern in the public sphere is also at the basis of the anti-monument philosophy, whose target is mining the ideology of official history. On the one hand, introducing intimate elements in public spaces normally devoted to institutional narratives, such as in the work of Jenny Holzer, Alfredo Jaar’s project ‘Es usted feliz? / Are you happy?’ and Felix Gonzales-Torres’ billboard images. On the other, through pointing at the incongruities of existing public sculptures and memorials, such as in Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video projections onto urban monuments, or in the building of counter-monuments (1980s) and Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks’ (1969-1974), a giant hybrid pop object – a lipstick – which base is a caterpillar track. Commissioned by the association of architecture students of the Yale University, the latter is a large-scale sculpture situated in the campus in front of the memorial to World War I.

In 1982, Maya Lin, at the time a senior student in Architecture at Yale, completed the construction of Vietnam Veterans Memorial, listing 59’000 names of American citizens who died in the Vietnam war. Lin chooses for this work to list the names of the dead without producing any images to illustrate the loss, if not by the presence of a cut – like an injury – in the installation site floor. The cut and the site / non-site logics will stay as a recurrent image in contemporary memorials since the 1990s.

Some forms of public art are designed to encourage audience participation in a hands-on way. Examples include public art installed at hands-on science museums such as the main architectural centerpiece out in front of the Ontario Science Centre. This permanently installed artwork is a fountain that is also a musical instrument (hydraulophone) that members of the public can play at any time. The public interacts with the work by blocking water jets to force water through various sound-producing mechanisms inside the sculpture. The ‘Federation Bells’ in Birrarung Marr, Melbourne is also a public art creation which works as a musical instrument. The first permanent large interactive public art was created by artist Jim Pallas in Detroit, Michigan in 1980, titled ‘Century of Light,’ in which a large outdoor mandala of lights reacted in complex ways to sounds and movements of visitors detected by radar for 25 years until it was mistakenly destroyed.

The Talking statues of Rome serve as an outlet for a form of anonymous political expression. Criticisms in the form of poems or witticisms is posted on well-known statues in Rome, as an early instance of bulletin board. The practice began in the 16th century and continues to the present day. Public art is also often used to refute those propagandistic desires of political regimes. Artists use culture jamming techniques, taking popular media and reinterpreting it with guerrilla-style adaptations, to comment of social and political issues relevant to the public.

In more open societies, artists often find public art useful in promoting their ideas or establishing a censorship-free means of contact with viewers. The art may be intentionally ephemeral, as in the case of temporary installations and performance pieces. Such art has a spontaneous quality. It is characteristically displayed in urban environments without the consent of authorities. In time, though, some art of this kind achieves official recognition. Examples include situations in which the line between graffiti and ‘guerilla’ public art is blurred, such as the art of the early works of Keith Haring (executed without permission in advertising poster holders in the New York City Subway) and the work of Banksy. The Northern Irish murals and those in Los Angeles were often responses to periods of conflict.

Public art sometimes proves controversial. A number of factors contribute to this: the desire of the artist to provoke, the diverse nature of the public, issues of appropriate uses of public funds, space, and resources, and issues of public safety. Detroit’s ‘Heidelberg Project’ was controversial due to its garish appearance for several decades since its inception in 1986. Artist Tyree Guyton painted a series of houses on Detroit’s Heidelberg Street with bright dots of many colors and attaching salvaged items to the houses. Richard Serra’s minimalist piece ‘Tilted Arc’ was removed from Foley Square in New York City in 1989 after office workers complained their work routine was disrupted by the piece. A public court hearing ruled against continued display of the work. Victor Pasmore’s ‘Apollo Pavilion,’ a concrete bridge-like structure in the English New Town of Peterlee, has been a focus for local politicians and other groups complaining about the governance of the town and allocation of resources. Artists and cultural leaders mounted a campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of the work with the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art commissioning artists Jane and Louise Wilson to make a video installation about the piece in 2003. Pierre Vivant’s Traffic Light tree near Canary Wharf, also in East London, caused some confusion from motorists when constructed in 1998, some of whom believed them to be real traffic signals. However, once the piece became more famous, it was voted the favorite roundabout in the country by a survey of Britain’s motorists.

Maurice Agis’ ‘Dreamspace V,’ a huge inflatable maze erected in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, killed two women and seriously injured a three-year-old girl in 2006 when a strong wind broke its moorings and carried it 30 ft into the air, with thirty people trapped inside. ’16 Tons,’ Seth Wulsin’s vast 2006 work includes the demolition of the raw material it works with, a former jail in Buenos Aires. In order to gain authorization to carry out the project, Wulsin had to engage a network of local, city and national government agencies, as well as former prisoners of the jail, human rights groups, and the military.


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