AN ONGOING MODERN PROJECT
Text / Yan Yong
Since “public art” is regarded as the artworks that can be visually and physically accessible to the public, it could be drawn back from some of the buildings and sculptures in the Acropolis in ancient Greek. If one wants to emphasize that public arts should be completely located in an outdoor place, those Roman triumphal columns and triumphal Arches can also be regarded as well-deserved examples of classical public art. From a broader perspective of the history of global civilization, the same is true for all kinds of ancient artworks outdoors, such as many gates and stone carvings in ancient China.
However, public art in the modern sense should be inseparable from the consciousness of the “public sphere”, which is the embodiment of some basic values of modern society according to the definitions and expositions by Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, and others. In this sense, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (Fig. 2) commissioned in 1806 mainly to commemorate the victorious Emperor Napoleon and his empire has the form of public art but lacks its spirit, while almost one hundred years later, those subway entrances for Paris Metro (Fig. 3) designed by Hector Guimard, that welcome the citizens of Paris to freely shuttle through them, are truly public art that has both form and spirit.
But even in such a modern public sphere, the long-standing tradition of monumental structures can still found its solid foundation. In 1921, Walter Gropius, the founder and the principal of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, designed the Monument to March Dead (Fig. 3) in honor of the strikers who were unfortunately killed in the wake of the Kapp Putsch. It is constructed of concrete, like a giant crystal rising diagonally upward from a low, roughly circular enclosure, the form of which alludes to a thunderbolt enlightening viewers standing silently in the inner space. The “modernity” presented by this distinctive expressionist style can even be testified by the historical experience of the monument: it was severely destroyed by the Nazis as an example of "degenerate art" in 1936 and was reconstructed in 1946.
Being built for the public and enjoyed by the public, public art cannot find its prosperity solely on the utopist ideals of a few modernist artists. From the 1930s on, the national art and cultural policies such as the Federal Art Project in the United States have provided unprecedented fertile ground for the development of public arts. For example, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the program Art-in-Architecture developed the “percent for art” programs, a structure for funding public art still utilized today, which allotted one half of one percent of total construction costs of all government buildings to the purchase of contemporary American art for them. As one of the strategies to deal with the economic depression, these programs used as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create all kinds of artworks accessible to all people, which has successfully altered the relationship between the artist and society.
Since the mid to late 1960s, consistent with the changes in the global social and cultural context, people’s understanding of public art has also undergone tremendous changes. Those monumental structures as some official visual narrative with didactical or even disciplinary meaning can now hardly prove themselves to be the arts enjoyed by the public and establishing the “public sphere”, although they are indeed an artistic embellishment of a certain public place. It is not difficult to understand that the intellectual base of public art has also shifted from the grand narrative to the site-specific.
It is in this context that some artists began to create “site-specific art”. They did not want artistic creation to merely create certain movable objects that can only exist in museums or art markets and drew attention to the site and the sphere or context around this site. In 1967, the artist Daniel Buren made an entrance for arts to the public place by employing striped awning canvas common in France: he set up hundreds of striped posters, so-called affichages sauvages, which means “Rusty Posting”, around Paris and later in more than 100 Metro stations. In 1973, in his work “Within and Beyond the Frame” at the John Weber Gallery, New York, he suspended a set of nineteen black and white striped squares of canvas on a cable that ran from one end of the gallery to the other, out the window to a building on the other side of West Broadway and back.
The idea of “site-specific art” emphasizes that the work is inseparable from its site. The artwork was created on the site and could only exist in such circumstances. In 1981, artist Richard Serra designed the public art installation Tilted Arc for Foley Federal Plaza in Manhattan, New York. According to Serra, an important part of the work’s meaning was that it would interact with the commuter passing through the plaza, a location usually passed through quickly on the way to somewhere else. Therefore, in 1989, when the installation was removed following an acrimonious public debate, Serra concluded simply and unequivocally that ‘To move the work is to destroy the work’ and no longer agrees to exhibit it in any other place.
Since the mid to late 20th century, an important issue of public art has been environmental problems. Many artists committed to raising ecological awareness through a green urban design process. In 1982, American artist Agnes Denes implemented the famous art project “Wheatfield — A Confrontation” in Manhattan’s Battery Park City landfill. A 2-acre wheat field was planted on the landfill in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. A few months later, the crop was harvested and yielded over 1,000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat. Another famous case is “7000 Oaks Trees” (Fig. 4) by the famous German artist Joseph Boyce. It was first publicly presented in 1982 at the exhibition Documenta 7. With the help of volunteers, Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees over several years in Kassel, Germany, each with an accompanying basalt stone. The project, though at first controversial, has become an important part of Kassel’s cityscape.
On the other hand, interactivity as an essential feature of public art has increasingly relied on modern high technology in the practice of recent decades, promoting the marriage of technology and art. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the light bulb by Thomas Edison, the “Century of Light” designed by the American sculptor Jim Pallas appeared on Washington Boulevard, Detroit in 1980. It could display computer-animated patterns generated in response to sounds and movements of people around using micro-wave radar and a photocell, as well as a programming facility called the PROGMOD. Some public art intends to encourage the public to directly participate in its creation. The hydraulophone (fig. 5) in front of the entranceway to the Ontario Science Centre, which has been largely catching the visitor’s interest and effectively prompting direct hands-on interaction, is one of the examples. Invented by Canadian engineer and installation artist Steve Mann, the hydraulophone is an experimental musical instrument that uses pressurized hydraulic fluid, such as water, to make a sound. The installation at Ontario Science Centre contrived by Mann is a hydraulic-action pipe organ. Blocking the flow of any one of the water jets in the fountain forces the water across to a corresponding organ pipe, where it makes a loud sound as the water is forced out through the speaking mouth of the pipe. Anyone, musician or not, walking into the public space constructed by the pipes and placing the fingers on the jets involves in organ playing, thus make her or his musical tone.
It is difficult to predict how public art will evolve in the future.
But what is certain is that as long as this kind of art still betrays vigorous vitality in some manner, the modern consciousness of the “public sphere” will never be annihilated. In this sense, public art is an ongoing modern project.