Study Afternoon, Thursday 7 September
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia
As commonplace as it is to suffix the title of a publication, exhibition or symposium with ‘now’, it rarely fails to raise a wry smile, especially when capitalised for extra hyperbole. Its usage is a declaration of intent: it assures the viewer, reader or participant of the urgency with which it addresses its respective subject matter. It is also provocative in its definitive response to whatever pressing questions around contemporaneity it seeks to elucidate. Implicit grandiose claims aside, attaching ‘now’ to almost anything presupposes anything other than its specific content as historical, with the secondary conclusion being that it is of less direct relevance to discussions of the present. So whilst I enjoy attempts to locate the most recent past, I am also conscious of its reductive framing.
The focus of a recent discussion at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art which borrowed this contemporary lens was public art. My interest in art outside of formal spaces traces back to my confusion at the unveiling of Jeppe Hein’s highly anticipated ‘Follow Me’, a permanent sculpture located in the grounds of Bristol University, where I was student. Its bemusing inconsequential scale made redundant its intended labyrinthine use. To this day, ‘Follow Me’ is a reminder of the critical juncture between the artists intention and its subsequent reception: a topic repeatedly returned to during the afternoon’s debate.
Birmingham-based artists Tom and Simon Bloor kicked off the three presentations with case studies of public artworks they have delivered to varying degrees of satisfaction, including ‘Terra Ludi’ (2015) at Nine Elms in London and ‘Ludus Folly’ (2015) for the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love. The artists were quick to talk of the difficult nature of the term ‘public art’, suggesting other possible binaries including commissioned vs non-commissioned, indoor vs outdoor and publically vs privately presented. These offerings usefully started to unpack key considerations for commissioners, the commissioned and intended audiences and in doing so opened out what was a flowing array of questions.
Simon and Tom candidly appraised the power dynamics involved when working with varying commissioners and stakeholders. Most striking, however, was their particular clarity regarding community involvement, deeming insistence on community consultation to be one of the most depressing things to read within an artist brief; “sometimes commissioners need to realise that the best involvement of the public is the least amount”. This wasn’t a flippant opinion of ego-driven or inexperienced artists but an expression of artists who have repeatedly been commissioned and are aware of the flattening effect working to multiple, competing agendas can have on the production of artworks. Rather than a damning account of their public, they argued that if an artist is rigorously commissioned, their considered working practices will naturally resolve contested issues around participation, engagement and of course aesthetics. Their presentation was refreshingly honest in its fore fronting of the management of expectations as the heightened challenge for both artists and commissioners working within the public realm.
Curator and Writer Dr Mark Wilshire presented a more traditional art historical lecture. Neatly threaded together and thoughtfully composed, he offered us two camps of public art; formal, contemplative and driven by an artist’s visions; against open, works which encourage participation and set out to facilitate experience. Wilshire’s account of Anish Kapor’s 114.5m high contribution to London 2012 Olympics ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’, which has by and large been critically panned, was particularly damning in its illustration of what Hal Foster described as ‘zombie public art’. Wilshire’s main gripe was that this work was a categorical demonstration of how large-scale public works seek to prescribe a form of public engagement and that the creation of a new subjectivity is fundamentally, a premise designed to fail. I was reminded of Miwon Kwon’s erudite contributions that ‘not all art is good and not everyone wants it’, which arguably all commissioners of contemporary art, whether public or not, are wise to keep as a sobering thought.
The afternoon’s proceedings were seamlessly chaired by curator and writer Dr Sarah Lowndes, currently based between Glasgow and Norwich. Thankfully, her contributions repeatedly brought the discussion back to the political. Lowndes spoke passionately about the potential of public art, citing examples such as Chris Burden’s self-commissioned ‘Urban Light’ (2008), a sculptural work consisting of 202 found antique street lights that had once stood around Los Angeles and now installed outside LAMCA. Success, she argued, lies in the transformative possibilities of projects in the public realm to provide moments of rest, encounter and collectivism: artworks which create a sense of self embodiment. The general feeling in the room was that, unfortunately, these projects do not present the majority of public art commissions.
Any discussion of art in the public realm highlights that presumed understanding of audience engagement, of a priori insights into how an artwork will be received, is both arrogant and naïve. Public art throws up and more intensely politicises questions of participation more so than any form of presentation. And it is for this reason, I felt it was a shame that the study day failed to focus on the distinct challenges to our public spaces and art as a strategy for resistance. Receding public spaces, the ubiquitous commercialisation of empty land or property and control imposed by violent surveillance and infrastructure which governs public areas, surely provides the urgency for some risk-taking public art projects. It takes brave artists and commissioners to realise this sort of work and relies on persistent discussion to make visible the need for this sort of commissioning, now.