As we go about our busy lives, travelling from point A to point B, we often encounter works of public art without noticing or appreciating them. Their importance is casually undermined. Some people may spare them a glance, and some may question their purpose; frankly, I am not completely innocent of such behaviour. However, I have grown to value the richness public art can bring to our cities.
What is public art?
Plainly put, public art is art that is intended to be displayed in public spaces. It can take the form of all types of media, including monuments, architecture, street performances, murals and beyond. Whether permanent or ephemeral (designed to respect the life of its natural setting), it is used as a tool for artistic expression, community education or celebration of space.
Why do some people dismiss public art?
- Expensive. When a city decides to install a six-figure piece of public art, taxpayers undoubtedly question whether it is worth said value or just an awful misuse of their money.
- “Tasteless”/ “What does it even mean?!” This reaction often comes from a large disconnect between the artist and the audience. The public’s lack of understanding of the artist’s intention in their use of form and material contributes largely to their disinterest in public art. Though admittedly, some works could simply fall under the category of “ugly”.
- “Insensitive subject matter.” Recently, Gaetano Pesce’s Maestà Sofferente in Milan sparked public outrage. The outdoor sculpture, shaped in the form of a woman’s torso, angered feminists who believed it objectified women. Although the artist claimed his intention to be completely the opposite, he and his audience could not on meet on the same page.
- “Why do we need public art anyways? Let’s talk about it!
What are some good examples of public art, and why are they important?
One of the most well-known examples of public art is the Statue of Liberty in New York, a torch-bearing female form that embodies so much cultural and historical significance that she inevitably finds her way into the sights of every tourist’s camera. Manneken Pis in Brussels and The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen occupy a similar iconic status. As defining symbols of their cities, these monuments have shaped the identity of their respective cities’ residents.
Pressing global issues:
My favourite type of public art is that which conveys thought-provoking messages. Ai Weiwei’ s Refugee Art Installation is one example. On the six Corinthian columns of Konzerthaus Berlin, he hung thousands of orange life jackets used by refugees. Regardless of one’s political take on the refugee crisis, the bright orange of the life jackets, in contrast with the weathering classical architecture, fills our view and sends warning signals to our brain. Similarly, Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson another beautiful yet daunting installation featuring 12 icebergs melted-off of a fjord in Greenland, harvested and displayed in prominent urban settings in the formation of a clock. This piece of land art makes it clear: we must act immediately because global warming is an urgent matter. We do not have much time left!
On a larger scale, architectural structures can also fall into the category of public art. For example, the Serpentine Galleries annually commission the world’s renowned architects to design a pavilion. Through this platform, architects experiment with technologies, materials, spaces and their relationship with people, and showcase their unique styles in architecture. SANAA’s 2009 Pavilion resembles their J Terrace Café in Okayama, which I had the good fortune of visiting this year. Bjarke Ingels’s 2016 Pavilion uses a similar strategy as his Telus Sky Tower in Calgary. These intriguing structures draw the public in to explore and interact with each other while showcasing their architects’ signature talent for design.
To stretch the idea even further, the towering Supertrees and surreal Cloud Forest of The Gardens by the Bay in Singapore can collectively be considered a grand gesture of public art, responsible for greening the country. And like the Statue of Liberty, this horticultural attraction defines the community, shapes the city, and influences those who live near it.
I could keep listing all the forms of public art I have fallen in love with but ultimately it is our individual and communal experiences with them that really make a difference. It is hard to say that all public art is beautiful, however for those that are, we should spare a moment of appreciation. If we replace our attitude of dismissal with curiosity and an open imagination, it is not difficult to get past our fleeting assessments and stop to truly recognize the opportunity for cultural impact that public art offers our lives.