A view of the Nelson Mandela monument in Mandela Square in Sandton City, South Africa (via flickr.com/cheeky-monkey)

On March 24, 2004 in Johannesburg, South Africa, a mammoth sculpture of legendary former president and icon Nelson Mandela was unveiled. Over 15 feet tall, this sculpture was commissioned to stand in the center of Nelson Mandela square in Sandton City, an upscale shopping mall in a well-to-do part of the city.

Artists Kobus Hattingh and Jacob Maponyane teamed up to create the bronze sculpture that weighed a total of 2,5 tons—that the shopping center website boasts weighs the same as an “adult African white rhino” (if you actually ever get to see one). Despite its impressive enormity, the sculpture has two major flaws.

A monument is not only about its physicality (in this case scale), it is also about history, more specifically about commemoration. The bronze seems to have overlooked the importance of expressing anything about its subject beyond a likeness, which is in itself questionable.

“The work looks more like Andre the Giant than Nelson Mandela,” is a comment by an art history major in response to the image of the sculpture. This is not helped by its lack of title.

Tourists beside the Mandela statue (via joburgnews.co.za)

What age is Nelson Mandela here? From his button up shirt — attire he became known for during his time as president — we assume it must be some point post-incarceration. This is important as it tells a lot about what stage of life he was in, which in turns situates us in the timeline of events within the history of the country. Instead, the artists have relied on size to make the figure of Nelson Mandela seem larger-than-life and therefore impressive. He is depicted as smiling and arbitrarily posing with his arm at half-mast to express the “jive” of the leader explains the artist, saying nothing of the years of hardship the man had to endure. As a result the artwork becomes a caricature void of history, personality or insight.

The second fundamental problem is that the sculpture is guised as a public work of art when in fact it has been created for an exclusive clientele by private enterprise. The site is a privately owned shopping center, although accessible to the public, it is not a site that is representative of the cities general public and does predetermine who sees the sculpture.

Journalist Chandrea Gerber aptly wrote in her Joburg News online article that covered the unveiling event:

Given his reputation as a champion of the disadvantaged, it was hardly surprising that many were confused as to why Sandton Square, seen by many as a symbol of commercial and social elitism, was being renamed in his honour. ‘Why here? Why not in Alexandra [township]?’ some were heard to murmur.

The answer is perhaps in the funding source: an undisclosed amount given by an anonymous donor. Who then decided on this artwork? I would suggest looking at the artistic virtuosity of the sculpture — it is both awkwardly large and clumsy — that its selection committee may not have been based in the art field. Perhaps the selection was based on function, as the sculptures one-meter long shoe makes an ideal place for tourist to take a snap with this intrepid leader. For its funders however this may be enough to deem the work successful.

The new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial unveiled in Washington DC (image via factoverfiction.com)

Monuments to heroic individuals can be sizeable and meaningful. Take the unveiling of Martin Luther King Jnr. monument in Washington DC two weeks ago. This sculpture, despite being outsourced to a sculptor in China, was created solely with King’s role in American history in mind. A whopping 30-f00t-high granite relief, the sculpture is engraved with paraphrased words from King’s “I have dream” speech.

King’s is depicted standing firm, arms crossed to echo the seriousness of his convictions. The sculpture’s form aids in it monumental function.

Public art first entered the public domain in the 1970s, created primarily for an art audience and with limited awareness of public interest. Artist and public art specialist Richard Gleaves explains that public art was for years, “Predicated on a very neutral space … and on an audience that understands contemporary art.” The problem that resulted he explains, “The minute they [public artists] go wide and public, they are stumbling into a world far beyond their understanding as given by their own profession.”

Claire Breukel

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...

7 replies on “Does Size Count in Public Art?”

    1. I’d never seen that work, Mark. Nice one. I always wonder what involvement the community should have in public art. I don’t know if I like the idea that an artist and a jury (or developer) always knows best in this case.

  1. Claire, I liked your report, thanks for it.

    I agree, the sculpture is awfully amateur, and its monumentality
    is bringing out the worst of it. 

  2. You mean site-specific public art entered public consciousness widely in the 1970s…because of the NEA?

  3. Thanks yes you are quite correct!  I should have been more specific – I was referring to the formalized term of Public Art as it relates to site and community. See below:  
    “public art. A term that can in its broadest sense be applied to any painting or sculpture designed to be displayed in public open spaces but which since about 1970 has also been used in a more restricted sense to refer to art that is envisaged as part of the life of the community in which it is sited.” http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O5-publicart.html
    Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks for the response Claire! I like you’re article but I am still a little confused by the last paragraph. For example, I think that Public Art, as you are defining it, was a response to both traditional “man on horseback” sculpture and modernist monumental abstract sculpture. Both of those forms were about powerful people using art to speak, and the abstract stuff in particular tended to be placed without reference to places and communities. The newer forms of public art, while not always successful, were specifically designed to interact with non-art audiences, and most artists working in these forms specifically relish the unexpected interactions with diverse audiences. So I think the quote at the end that artists “are stumbling into a world far beyond their understanding as given by their own profession” simply isn’t true or refers to some other kind of work.

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