PUBLIC ART IN URBAN SPACES
Text & Photo / Robin Wong
Founder and Managing Director, Art Pioneer Studio Curator APSMUSEUM Vice President
Shanghai International Cultural Exchange Association
Public art has always been an essential force of influence in the human history of urban development, though the term “public art” was not used until the modern age. Public art is decorative as part of the landscape and instructive as part of the city spirit, reinforcing the common metaphysical will of a city. In history, public art works were anchored in the theocratic religions, or extended following the authority of the rule of law, or interwoven into both. Their construction and publicness have been very much needed as a symbol or memorial that transcends time and becomes the will of a city, instead of a replica of mundane functionality. The ancient Greek city-states are perfect examples of that kind.
It, in a sense, reflects how we view the world, how we react to time and locations, and even how we perceive ourselves. As city develops and changes, human intellectual history also evolves towards a higher level of diversity and complexity. The explosive development of philosophy and technology has also endowed art with more diverse possibilities.
Since the 20th century, urban spirit has gradually moved from the will of religions and power towards the era of decentralization, which is symbolized by diversity and inclusiveness. Modernism and post-modernism are redefining the city spirit today, unleashing the freedom of art. Public art, thus, finally turned back to artists from the top-level authority and power and formed a new art genre through commissions and supervision. A middle status – a new form of medium – that connects artists and city spirit was finally born.
Encounter, the theme of Shanghai Urban Space Art Season 2019, echoes the nature of public art. People might have the question: How were the twenty artworks standing on the banks of Yangpu River created? How should contemporary art create genuine “encounters” with the urban space and people’s day-to-day life in Shanghai? Though art intervention in public spaces has emerged as a new trend in China’s urban renewal initiatives, the challenges remain tremendous, as argued by Catherine Grout in her book, Pour de l’art dans notre quotidien, desœuvres en milieu urbain.
The twenty permanent public art works on the banks of Yangpu River went through thirty months of development, covering the initial planning, location selection, and the final installation. Our role included curation, monitoring and implementation. Within this intricate, collaborative network, we realized multi-party “encounters” and served as the bridge connecting invited artists, curators and consultants. All activities were threaded together, including contract signing, proposal developing, design finetuning, final parts producing, onsite installing, as well as assisting the document preparation for approvals from the local authorities, planning bureau, academic committee, among others.
During the process, we signed nearly ninety contracts (4-5 contracts for one site on average). The contract negotiation was even more complicated and required two law firms based in Hong Kong and Shanghai to draft the contracts when overseas artists were involved. The complexity of proposal finalization and actual construction was tremendous. For example, Extraterrestrial Object by Liu Jianhua was designed to be 20 meters high and was required to be typhoon-resistant. Despite the artist’s efforts in improving the robustness of the artwork, a specialized and qualified design house was invited to develop its structural engineering and calculation, which was then reviewed by highly competent structural specialists. For public art, safety is always the first priority. No error is tolerated. The construction and installation of artworks should follow the standards for architecture strictly. Though artworks are of a smaller scale, no single step could be bypassed.
Permanent public art projects are like exhibitions that never come to
an end. For each piece of the works, a special maintenance plan detailed with instructions was tailor-developed. Examples included the maintenance instruction manual for the neon lights and spray paint for GATES: Art, Travel and Encounter by José de Guimarães; the observation and maintenance manual for the glass used for the ship, the temperature and pressure change of the soil, and the plants of Time Shipper by Oiwa Oscar.
In fact, through such large-scale art intervention projects in urban spaces, people start to realize the critical role of the implementor who interfaces public administration with artists.
For a large urban public art project, every stage, every artwork, every staff member, and every work process are interlocked. In this sense, public art projects are interactive to a certain level, involving artists, architects, designers, community residents, approving authorities, sponsors,
and construction teams. As the intermediate role for public art projects and the force-bearing point for the vast networks, project implementers must align themselves with the global standards for public art, so that they are competent to deliver master plans and whole-process implementation for city-level public art projects.
A building or urban space is alive and cultural-centric often because of the participation of art. Shanghai Urban Space Art Season 2019 is becoming part of the cultural life of the locals. Contemporary art is enriching and elevating the intrinsic spiritual structure of urban spaces through its new approach. Agencies responsible for whole-process implementation and supervision should first respect art and artists and understand the in-depth meaning of artworks, instead of being too business-oriented. Holding up to that belief, Art Pioneer Studio was founded because of its sensitivity towards the influence and changes that artworks bring to our environment and spaces. It is committed to something novel through its crossover efforts covering architecture and art. At Art Pioneer Studio, we see the catalyzing and facilitating nature of public art that promotes city spirit. LikeTime Shipper andSet of Diagonals for Cranes, Yoshiyuki Kawazoe’s 1 Year / 10 Thousand Years at White & Seven Coffee within Fantasy Bubble has also become the new attraction on the bank of Yangpu River.
The public art that promotes city spirit goes beyond high-level design or artistic creation but positions itself as a comprehensive enterprise. As an implementor agency, we can see what is happening in each role at the scene and how those activities merge into an interactive network, which is part of the modern city spirit: diverse and free; inclusive but segmented. That is something totally different from the ancient Greek city-states.
Public art is part of our shared history and memories of ever-evolving culture and humankind society. It reflects what is happening in our community and gives insightful meaning to the cities we habitat. When artists echo the voice of our era, they project their internal reflections onto the external world, thus, creating the chronicles that are experienced and shared by all of us.