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What would we consider good public art?

What would we consider good public art?
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First Published: Thu, May 07 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Different strokes: The spoonbridge and cherry sculpture by Oldenburg and van Bruggen in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ConceptVisual.com
Different strokes: The spoonbridge and cherry sculpture by Oldenburg and van Bruggen in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ConceptVisual.com
Updated: Thu, May 07 2009. 04 04 PM IST
Some years ago, at a conceptual art competition, a Baroda painter proposed a free standing man, 20ft tall, urinating against the wall of various national landmarks—India Gate, Victoria Memorial and Churchgate Station. His idea was dismissed summarily as provocative, obscene and offensive. One could argue on his behalf that the temporary work was meant as an ironic monument to a peculiarly Indian urban phenomenon but, in any case, the project was rejected as a form of cultural perversion. A severe “this is not art” reprimand was issued to the artist. Besides, the jury felt that the public was too “illiterate” for irony.
Different strokes: The spoonbridge and cherry sculpture by Oldenburg and van Bruggen in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ConceptVisual.com
I’m not about to plead for or against the artist and/or the project he mooted, but at about the same time, in a rundown neighbourhood in south Boston, a local artist chose the side wall of an apartment block as his canvas. The blank face of the five-storey building fronted a public plaza and was the natural setting for a display of public art. To keep the work topical, the artist painted his view of what he imagined to be happening in the apartments behind the wall: a child reading on the staircase, a family at a dinner table, a man arguing with his wife in the bedroom, another lying in the bathtub, a thief carrying away a television.
The imaginary composition did not just give artistic life to the plaza, but combined all the components of the area into a singular entity. It gave artistic insight not just into architecture, but the plaza and the lives of the people in the building. By its direct engagement with people, architecture and surroundings, the piece of work spoke a language everyone in the neighbourhood could appreciate. People came, they marvelled, laughed and argued about the content.
In the neglected neighbourhood, without the picturesque paraphernalia of design—street furniture, cobbled walkways, trees and fountains—the piece of art created an urban cohesion and a new way of appreciating city space. Seen in this light, things such as benches and paving seemed less important. Art was an integral part of the urban design and instilled a new pride in the neighbourhood.
When Swedish-born, US-based sculptor Claes Oldenburg said that he was for an art that “takes its lines from the lines of life itself, which twists and extends and spits and drips and is blunt and coarse and sweet and stupid”, he was talking of the Boston wall. His own work, like the oversized golf ball on a tee, the giant clothes pin in a public square in Philadelphia or the spoonbridge and cherry sculpture in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in Minnesota, speaks of ordinary things made special by size, scale and placement. Their identification with the people who experienced them daily while on their way home or to office was part of the consolations of an urban experience strung together as many minor experiences: a shaded walkway, a hot dog vendor, a passage through a park. Art was part and parcel of the city experience.
Sprouts by Vibhor Sogani, designed for Jindal Steel, near the AIIMS flyover in New Delhi. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Urban art in India has unfortunately been reduced to the picturesque. Unconnected to the city, it has the same quality as winter flowers on a roundabout or a Pepsi hoarding on a sidewalk. Its presence or absence contributes little to the quality of urban life. So it was a matter of some surprise when the Delhi government sanctioned a hefty fee for the installation of an urban sculpture at the AIIMS crossing. As you pass the interchange, you see steel balloons, metallic lollipops swaying in the breeze, above a ground that also swells and sways.
Mesmerizing and hypnotic though the pieces, its placement at a site meant to convey traffic at high speeds across different roadways seems not just inappropriate, but irresponsible. The merits of the sculpture aside, the positioning of visual distractions on high speed roads, that too by the government, makes you wonder whether a parking lot will be sanctioned next to allow people to stop for an ice cream and an evening stroll on the mounds. The purpose of “beautification”—doubtless the intention behind the sculpture—presumes the city to be an ugly place in need of visual uplift and distraction.
When Mumbai chose to shift tourist attention away from the slums that line the drive to Santa Cruz, the local authorities opted to install pictures of Indian birds on concrete hoardings. Rather than upgrade the slums, it was hoped that foreign couples on their first trip to India would marvel at the larger-than-life sized portraits of kingfishers and mynahs, and not notice the shanties behind them or the line of men defecating in the drain below. The idea, as with other instances, was to solve the problem by diverting attention. For too long, this has been a successful strategy for municipal governments.
If art has a place in city life, its connection to ordinary citizens and their movement through public space needs careful evaluation before it receives sanction. In the race to create world-class cities, the government’s intentions remain muddled: It would seem that as long as art can help make a third-world city look first-world, that’s all that matters.
CONNECT
APPLAUD
Four finalists have been chosen for Britain’s best-known art award, the £25,000 (Rs18.6 lakh) Turner Prize. Sculptor Roger Hiorns (right), 34, turned a derelict London flat into a crystal cave titled ‘Seizure’, with thousands of litres of liquid copper sulphate (visitors had to wear protective clothing). London-based Enrico David, 43, creates installations, sculptures and drawings inspired by everything from traditional crafts to 20th century surrealism. In Glasgow, Lucy Skaer, 34, produces drawings, sculptures and films using photos. Richard Wright, 49, is a Glasgow-based painter inspired by architecture. An exhibition of their works opens at the Tate on 7 October. The winner will be announced on 7 December. AP
SEE
This undated rendering provided by California Strategies, Llc. shows a proposed Malibu, California, development by U2 guitarist David Evans. Through his spokespeople, Evans, known as “The Edge”, says the half-dozen mansions he wants to build will look like fallen leaves on a hillside and have about as much impact on the surrounding environment. AP
KNOW
Henry Miller’s Theatre, the first new Broadway house in at least 20 years, is New York’s first “green” theatre, meeting the standards of the US Green Building Council. Scheduled to open in September, it has been built on the site of an older one, planned by actor Henry Miller and dating back to 1918. The 50,000 sq. ft theatre, which includes a ladies’ restroom with 22 stalls (thrice as many as required by the local code), is built behind the original’s preserved and restored neo-Georgian facade. Recycled materials were used in wall panels and baseboard, waterless urinals in the men’s washroom and local material in the marble flooring and countertops. ©2009/The NEW YORK TIMES
VISIT
The art installation, titled ‘Fabiola’, by artist Francis Alÿs, contains hundreds of portraits of the fourth century Christian saint Fabiola. This picture was taken at the National Portrait Gallery in central London on 1 May. The portraits, which include paintings, embroidery and miniatures, are all versions of the same 19th century original and were gathered by the artist from flea markets, antique shops and private collections. The exhibition will run till 27 September. AFP
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First Published: Thu, May 07 2009. 01 15 AM IST