Opinion

What Does Meaningful Engagement with Public Art Look Like?

Physical and online interaction with a bear sculpture.
Physical and online interaction with a bear sculpture (image via thememezone.tumblr.com)

After “Statue Porn,” my first post for Hyperallergic, was published earlier this year, some commenters responded by asking what a quality interaction with public art might look like. It’s easy to spot silly or sexual interactions, but what are examples of people engaging with public art in a more serious or meaningful manner?

The picture above represents one tiny step past most of the “statue porn” and the “Is that the Washington Monument in Your Pants or Are You Just Happy to See Me?” imagery. It shows a young woman interacting with the sculpture on a purely physical level — not that this sculpture has much else to offer. Afterwards, the subject of the photo, or more likely someone who found the picture online, added text to make it meme-able. Although this is may seem equally as playful but meaningless as much of the statue porn, it represents a sort of collaboration folded into one image and adds a sense of narrative to an otherwise dull and stationary statue.

Skateboarding on modernist sculpture
Skateboarding on modernist sculpture (image from Raphaël Zarka)

Raphaël Zarka collects these images of skateboarders repurposing nondescript modernist sculptures as platforms for skating. These are beautiful photographs and impressive skateboarders. Skateboarders, bikers and rollerbladers have always scoured the city for new tricks, and I love what Zarka found.

Photography by Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen
Untitled photograph by Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen (image courtesy the artists)

Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s deadpan photographs caught my eye, and this one is perfect for this post. Gray and Paulsen stage their interaction to raise a question I often ask: Why aren’t there more public art platforms dedicated to contemporary art? Can we expect the public to be thoroughly engaged with art from the past? This photograph succinctly summarizes my opinion of most public artwork.

Kamila Szejnoch, "Huśtawka (Swing)"
Kamila Szejnoch, “Huśtawka (Swing)” (image via artist’s website)

Kamila Szejnoch’s website appears to be currently down, but you can read a little more about “Huśtawka (Swing)” here. Szejnoch wanted to open up a dialogue with an old communist propaganda sculpture using contemporary art as a tool. This light-hearted and participatory installation asks what a monument to the people really is and how we can respond to, learn from and enjoy our history.

The Yes Men, "Bullfight on Wall Street"
The Yes Men, “Bullfight on Wall Street” (image via the artists’ website)

“Bullfight on Wall Street” by The Yes Men was an Occupy Wall Street–inspired street performance. Using the Wall Street Bull both quite literally but also as a metaphor for the entire New York Stock Exchange, The Yes Men deployed rodeo clowns as a police distraction to allow for a fully costumed matador to jump atop a police car and snap his red flag, facing the bull head on. Protests have incorporated theater and sculpture for a long time, but The Yes Men’s “Bullfight on Wall Street” made for one of the more powerful acts of political street theater I can remember. Certainly a more creative engagement with public art than Dylan Spoelstra’s sit-in protest atop Mark di Suvero’s “Joie de Vivre.”

Krzysztof Wodiczko, "The Tijuana Projection"
Krzysztof Wodiczko, “The Tijuana Projection” (image via Art:21)

“The Tijuana Projection” is a good example of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s most famous body of work. Wodiczko uses politically charged buildings and monuments — the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, for example — as surfaces on which to project videos, often with the help of local residents. Wodiczko is concerned with how these hugely significant spaces are not as responsive to contemporary life as they could be. His work uses high-tech video equipment, speakers and blueprints to open up architecture and monuments to the people they serve, allowing for a renegotiation of space. Maybe one day, monuments will incorporate this type of interactivity from the very beginning.

Antony Gormley's "One and Other". Image from Aphexlee on Flickr.
Antony Gormley, “One and Other” (image via flickr/Aphexlee)

Antony Gormley’s “One and Other” for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth takes Wodiczko’s ideology as the premise of the piece itself. London’s Fourth Plinth is an important platform for commissions of temporary and, importantly, contemporary installations. In 2009 Gormley decided that instead of making an iconic sculpture, he’d hand over the plinth to the people of London, allowing 2,400 residents to spend one hour on the plinth doing whatever they wanted. It was a celebration of the people by the people.

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