It’s easy to scoff at public art, as a few have – and there’s been many an unfair article written about the costs, the chosen sites and the work itself. But at the heart of these projects that face some undeserved criticisms is that they bring art to everyone: without the white walls of a gallery or the price of an exhibition ticket, it’s there for all to see and to participate in. At last night’s Nicer Tuesdays we heard from four fantastic speakers who work to curate, create or facilitate public art; working for the Serpentine Galleries, Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, with thousands of people in huge participatory experiences or in the case of one artist, creating mind-blowing trompe l’oeil installations.
Our first speaker was exhibitions curator at the Serpentine Galleries Emma Enderby, who ran us through the history of the Serpentine Pavilions commissions. Each year a different architectural practice that’s never worked in the UK creates a temporary structure to sit on the lawn outside the main gallery space in London. It’s strange to think that only in 2000 Zaha Hadid was one of these architects, creating a pavilion that it was then decided would remain in the space. This first piece was followed by works from architects including Rem Koolhaas and artists like Ai Wei Wei, and it was fascinating to hear about the difficulties of creating such bold pieces in a Royal Park. It’s made us even more keen to pop over to this year’s pavilion, created by Spanish architecture duo (and husband and wife) SelgasCano.
Holly Gramazio, a games designer, knows a thing or two about fun, and has created huge mass-participatory games for thousands of people. No mean feat, especially when you’re doing so for thousands and thousands of people in Edinburgh on New Year’s Day. Holly ran through the potential problems with her work, a surreal list including “queues,” “danger,” “xylophones” and “traffic.” Her major insight was “balloon entitlement” – where adults and children alike see a balloon, and will go to any lengths to make it theirs. “In games people enter a slightly parallel world,” she said.
As public art goes, there are fewer works that fit that description more than those that grace Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Seen by 4,000 eyes every hour, they’re possibly the most public that art could be, and the lady who curates them is Kirsten Dunne. Her brilliant talk showed why we can’t take those things that cities offer for granted: simply by being in central London, over the years we’ve not only been able to view works by the likes of Yinka Shonibare, Jeremy Deller, Mark Wallinger (his Ecce Homo was the first ever commission), but we’ve been able to see some of the most controversial artworks to be displayed in the public realm. Remember the controversy around Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant? Or Anthony Gormley giving the plinth over to anyone who wanted their 60 minutes of fame up there? “Gormley said ‘this is your plinth’,” said Kirsten, and went on to show us how people stage their own mini interventions with public art, with some even organising official rugby tackles of them. “People take ownership of sculpture in public places and that’s how it should be,” says Kirsten. “The Fourth Plinth really tells us something about London, and about expression and risk. It’s a testament to London’s love of liberty.”
Our final speaker was the inimitable Alex Chinneck, who we’ve featured numerous times for projects like his levitating building and his life-sized house made of wax. “Public art has to be for the public, and you can do that through playfulness and illusion,” Alex said. His work combines feats of architecture and engineering with the mind of a fine artist whose concepts can only come to life with the help of British industry, whose support ensured his first projects, which had “no money” behind them, could be realised. His next project is creating a huge upside down pylon at London Design Festival, which we can’t wait to see. But alongside great concepts and perfect execution, Alex is savvy about what public art needs to do in 2015: “you have to consider something that works in an Instagram culture.”
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