Entries Tagged 'PUBLIC ARTEFACTS' ↓

Public Aesthetics and Public Ethics


What makes public art fair game for political graffiti? This 1969-1972 monumental untitled sculpture by Margel Hinder occupies a courtyard space in Woden, Canberra. In its time, such art was resolutely apolitical. In those days, such examples of public art were a source of cultural pride. Untouchable. However one might now say that the concept of the public in the space of public art enables the kind of transgressive political action we see here. I’m not sure I know how to unpack the ethics of anti-aesthetic actions such as these. Graffiti on works of art maximises attention, as we see from recent examples around the world. But does it also diminish the politics of the action? And today there’s a topical piece at Hyperallergic. Food for thought in every direction…


Public art can be dangerous for your health (and psychological wellbeing)


One of my favourite works in the Australian National University’s sculpture collection used to be Witness, by the renowned Indonesian/Australian artist Dadang Christanto. Comprised of aluminium forms attached to the skeleton of a eucalypt tree, it looked for all the world like a flock of Sulphur-crested cockatoos that had lobbed into the branches of the tree, as they do. Commissioned in 2004, when Dadang was artist-in-residence at the School of Art, for quite some time it stood in splendid isolation overlooking the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Subsequently, in a wind storm, some of the aluminium forms detached themselves and fell to the ground.


For the last five years there has been a dodgy star-picket and wire fence to keep spectators at bay. Now (shock! horror!) the whole area has been surrounded by a vast backyard fence! It is now framed in a way such that the original work has a radically inappropriate new visual component. Now I know (and I’ve argued on this site) that reframing is a particularly Canberran discourse – witness the way the experts and architects at the National Gallery have redesigned and reframed The Aboriginal Memorial – but this is example of what is technically known as outsider design. Or is this Occupational Health and Safety gone mad? In which case, what about the psychological health of the artlovers like your iconophile who have to walk past it every morning?


There are ethical and moral rights issues at play here. Was the artist consulted? If so, we will need to reconsider whether the work has been transformed in some way into a sad statement about art in the public domain. Was anyone asked whether this was an appropriate addition to the work? If so, there is an interesting question of curatorial responsibility at play. Alternately, perhaps this is a test case for public art more generally? The Skywhale, for example, could be flown behind a giant fence, and then nobody would be unhappy. Except me.

politically correct taste

If you read my previous post, you will realise that a debate has erupted in the skies over Canberra over what constitutes appropriate forms of public art. Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhale, which was commissioned by Centenerary Director Robyn Archer, has flown into a storm of oppobrium. People don’t like it, people hate it, people love it. It’s inoppobriate. The peeps think it should better represent them.

Whoa! Since when has public art been required to represent the citizenry? Except, perhaps, indirectly, in representing the wisdom and foresight of those who commission the work, and those whose responsibility it is to design and curate our public spaces… And, in this democratic age, if you don’t like this one, how about that one?

So why on earth has our ex-Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, arisen from his siesta on Christmas Island to bag Robyn, and her political mistresses, his political allies, in such a virulent manner? Is it perhaps to distract our attention from his own parting gift to the excessive collection of mostly minor and mediocre works that were acquired as a result of the percent-for-art scheme (now defunct, subsequently abandoned by the ex-Chief Minister in the face of voter angst). But this final excruciating ensemble (by whom I can’t tell you, I couldn’t find a plaque, perhaps they’re sitting on it) has an interesting story…


When the ex-Chief Minister was the Chief Minister he convened a panel of experts to advise on the expenditure of the percent-for-art. They recommended against this work. Very well, decided the then-Chief Minister, I don’t need a panel to tell me whether or not I like something. We’ll have it anyway… The panel was dissolved. The money was spent.

Now if only we could get the damn thing to fly away, everyone would be happy.

So is it the purpose of public art to incite controversy?

Public art is never universally loved, or hated. And Skywhale is not to my taste. But I’m with Robyn Archer when she says the Piccinini Skywhale is there to evoke “powers of imagination that allows wonder and curiosity into our lives.” And when our ex-Chief Minister Jon Stanhope (who must suffering sensory deprivation on Christmas Island, along with all the refugees he’s looking after) says the commission is “arrogant” and “self-indulgent” and should have been vetoed by the current Chief Minister. But how does that differ from the myriad examples of his own taste plonked all over the town, that we have to continue to live with? And let’s not forget that he caved in to political pressure and abandoned the 1% for art scheme…

What Skywhale isn’t is as significant in this debate as what it is. It isn’t safe, parochial, or self-referential, and it signals adventure, challenge, and invention as it’s seen and appreciated all over the world. Publicity you can’t buy. The risk is, judging from the reaction, that’s false advertising…

Who would have thought relational art would become so lucrative?


Nearly two decades ago Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational art’ to describe “a set of practices which takes as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” (Bourriaud 2002: 113) Relational artists are, he said, orientated towards collective rather than individualistic expression, and envisage their art as a political rather than aesthetic project. Nowadays everyone is a relational artist, or so it seems.

With the latest acquisition by the National Gallery of Australia of the work ‘A–Z homestead unit’ by the Californian relational artist Andrea Zittel, it is the presence for ten days of the Canberra/Melbourne artist Charlie Sofo that will provide the work with its social context, as he “customizes” the work, (according to the Gallery blurb) and blogs his experiences. Sofo has been invited to inhabit this diminutive “dwelling” – on his own terms – using it either as a space for work, for thought, or to sleep over.

In itself, habitable art has been around for a lot longer that relational art. In the mid-seventies, the Californian/Australian artist Marr Grounds, together with his two dogs Mutt and Pete, “inhabited” a sandbag bunker (entitled the “art thing”) that he had built under the stairs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


People visited, and contributed to his evolving concept of a participatory art practice: visitors to the “art thing” poured sand onto prepared “art bit” cards, and took them away as their own work. Grounds’ motive was as much a commentary on the elitist climate of the art world as it was an experiment in a “democratic” mode of practice.


Like the later work by Tim Burns and Michael Callaghan in the same museum, living in the gallery space was a deliberately disruptive gesture aimed at challenging the prevailing modernist dogma of art’s autonomy from its social context, intending instead to  re-conceptualise the gallery as a social space.

If these were some of the precursors of relational art in Australia, Zittel’s work occupies another world indeed. Like a piece of DIY backyard furniture, if it were more functional, and a lot less expensive, it’s the kind of thing you might buy at Bunnings, the local hardware store. More like a commodity than a piece of sculpture, it gestures towards lived spaces, without having to function in anything but a nominal manner as a space in which anyone might actually live.

Made of steel, glass and chipboard-based building materials, it’s about the size of two double beds, and contains the kind of basic equipment you’d need for a camping holiday. However its functionality leaves a lot to be desired. There are no windows to open, no screens, and the mosquitoes are free to come and go through the gaps around the roof. The glass walls are enhanced by printed imagery which depicts a kind of abstracted reflection of a surrounding landscape. Other than the print imagery, there is nothing to suggest that this is a sculptural object, or a work of art in any recognizable sense. It is so loaded with other kinds of referents (to homelessness, to isolation, to incarceration, even) that it functions both as a kind of inversion of an aesthetic discourse as much as it suggests its impossibility as a space to live in.

While this work has been located on the lawns of the NGA sculpture garden, for it to have any kind of longevity it will ultimately have to be moved to a sheltered environment, or the galleries indoors. In that context its aesthetics will be rendered even more bizarre. One wonders in what context this could be shown… as some banal parody of Utopian Design, perhaps?

Perhaps it is only its rumoured price tag of $150,000 that will signify its institutional significance as a work of art. Clearly relational art is no longer a zero-sum game.

Author’s disclosure: Pete the dog also belonged to your iconophile.

non-secular (and “incredibly boring”): public art in the Bible Belt

read Ben Valentine, in reflective mode, here at Hyperallergic

what goes round

…comes round. Designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Belmond, constructed by Arup, the infelicitously named “Ancelor Mittal Orbit” opens today to the fee-paying public. While Belmond invokes Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919-20), [and, incidentally, pre-dates it by a decade!] I can’t help thinking that the messiness of Rodchenko’s “Design for a City with Elevated Facades” (1920) provides us with a better precursor?

And in the Guardian Jonathan Jones also defends it against the “messiness” of the public debate… Over at ArtInfo Kyle Chayka worries about what such gigantism says about the contemporary art bubble…

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.

Even if they stripped a tad too deep. Welcome to Canberra. And its very particular aesthetic sensibility.  This extraordinary new gateway object gives “Airport Art” a few new meaning/dimensions. That we don’t know who is the author of this bizarre and kinky nude thing is its best aspect. You do have to avert your eyes to avoid the lady-parts and the erectile tissue. And the flayed skin. So please forgive the dodgy phonograph – your iconophile was suffering repulsion-effects…

Canberra Voters Beware!

Drawn away from their core principles by the manipulative strategies of the ACT Liberals, apparently the ACT Greens have completely forgotten their commitment to Indigenous culture. With an election on the near horizon, their recent behaviour with respect to their Arts policy (as much as they have one, given the weird pronouncements of the last few days) would suggest that in their political strategies they take no notice of their published policies. Not that they have much to strategise about. Other than a “belief” that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures “make a vital and continuing contribution to arts and culture in the ACT”  their Arts Policy contains nothing of a strategic nature in relation to Indigenous matters. The final (twenty-second) point in the ACT Greens Policy on the general interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples suggests that the ACT Greens will “support” actions “promoting the understanding of, and respect for, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures through community education and information strategies.”

Let’s compare words and deeds. Given the opportunity to support a local organization (yes, I mean Megalo) that has a long and eminent national track record working with Indigenous artists, they give their support instead to an opportunistic rag-bag of community musicians and other organisations who have voiced no apparent interest in, or have no track record of support for Indigenous anything. None of the proponents supporting the Liberals and the Greens political strategy to block the occupancy by Megalo of the Fitters Workshop have shown the slightest interest in promoting Indigenous arts in their dreams of a Fitters Music Hall. By contrast, over many years Megalo has supported and conducted residencies and programs playing a vital role in supporting and producing one of the most significant aspects of the development of contemporary Indigenous (visual) arts. And so, let me ask Ms Le Couteur (who is the Green Voice of the Arts) which group should you be supporting, to be consistent with your “policies”?

doing it properly

Upscaling Aboriginal art to fit large public spaces can be problematic, as the big fish-trap saga at the National Gallery of Australia has amply demonstrated. In this case the work by the late Mrs Yunupingu at the Australian National University does it properly. In the large four-story atrium of the Corbett Lyons designed Hedley Bull Centre, Gulumbu’s Garrurru is a perfect fit for the scale and material qualities of the space. Garrurru invokes the memory and the narrative significance of the annual visits by Macassan traders who visited Arnhem Land up to the early years of the twentieth century. At nine meters high, it’s about twice the size of the original sail on a Macassan prau.

Here’s a snap of the opening ceremony, which gives a better sense of the scale of the work. University dignitaries Professors David Williams and Marnie Hughes-Warrington greet Gulumbu and her daughter Dhalulu Ganambarr Stubbs, and officially launch the work, to the acclaim of the audience assembled for the event. Both Dhalalu and the late Mrs Yunupingu spoke with great emotion about the work and its significance to the Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land, and their satisfaction with the way in which the work had found its way to the ANU.

When Frances Morphy spoke about the aesthetic significance of the work, she observed that it is the manipulation of scale in the resolution of the work that gives it its aesthetic impact. Not only is its sheer size commanding – responding successfully to the somewhat challenging architectural elements with which it now coexists – but it is the scale effects of the complex motifs within the sail that pulls the viewer in to its other imagery, which is Gulumbu’s own vision of the starry night sky. The representation of the night sky – dazzling in its luminosity in that part of the world – has long been Gulumbu’s renowned signature iconography. The design of the painted low-relief surface of the sail-shaped panel successfully translates the micro-structure of the artists bark-paintings to the grand expressive gestural character of its new medium. It’s like looking back in time, as if through a telescope. As you may read in the wall text below, for the artist the infinite numbers of stars is symbolic of the almost-infinite numbers of the human inhabitants of the planet.

Garrurru has been four years in the making, since Will Stubbs from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala first visited the ANU to assess the potential of the site. It’s been worth the wait.