marcus westbury

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Public Art: Fixed or fluid?

April 20th, 2010 by marcus

PUBLIC art could learn a lesson or two from street art. Seriously.

Melbourne is a fantastically textured city. It was one of the reasons I first fell in love with the place. While Sydney is all about the big picture and gets better looking the further you zoom out, Melbourne is the opposite.

Melbourne’s postcard shots are underwhelming but zoom in and every detail seems textured, worked on and refined. Every inch of the place is contested and cared for. This city’s public spaces are full of creations and provocations from public art to architecture and beautifully detailed shop fronts and randomly fascinating laneways that bring the city to life. Some of them are formal, some informal, some accidental and some are even illegal.

Yet sometimes I fear that Melbourne’s formal public art actually misses the point of the organic qualities that make the city interesting.

You only need to look to Docklands to see how wrong you can get it.

The idea that public art should be grand and permanent rather than organic and evolutionary is one of the curses of the place. Compulsory developer contributions and other schemes have encouraged what they describe as striking, large-scale works. From cows up trees to giant sculptures, it’s seemingly all big, fixed, enduring stuff but feels alienating and soulless a lot of the time. It’s not that the individual works are individually bad but, collectively, Docklands still lacks the organic texture that makes Melbourne Melbourne.

How can public art be more capable of subtlety, ambiguity, impermanence? The process that takes sculptures and puts up a giant, overt sign that says this is public art often works against them.

I prefer the idea that public art is a dialogue — that works are put out there on trial. A work’s longevity is better determined by the public’s embrace than the project manager’s engineering.

At least as important is not the fixed objects that artists leave behind but the way that artists and creative people are encouraged or discouraged from using the city. A city as a space of spontaneous, casual, constant creativity is at least as important as commissioned monuments and it’s a complex thing to regulate.

For examples, look at Melbourne’s street art.

Street art culture can serve as a useful model for more formal public art. It constantly reinvents itself. Most graffiti and street art is very temporary and tenuous — it doesn’t last long and generally doesn’t deserve to. Most of it is crap, generic and forgettable. Yet some works stand the test of time through deference to the artist and the work by other street artists, out of luck, or simply because the public can’t bring themselves to remove it.

The short-term cycle is messy and random, but anything that stands the test of time generally has some quality or sentiment to it or develops it from its familiarity.

Sentiment for public spaces evolves and isn’t created. Sometimes it is the most unlikely things that are warmly embraced. It’s hard to think of two more emotive symbols of Melbourne than the Nylex clock or Richmond’s Skipping Girl — both are anachronistic advertising but genuinely much loved. They do show that if you leave something long enough, people may come to value it. But planners might be better served if they remove works (or threaten to take them away) for long enough that people decide they want them back.

To be fair, we don’t get it wrong all the time.

The City of Melbourne created short-term laneway commissions, such as the stairway to nowhere, that embrace the fleeting and temporary.

It is not without risk. Protecting our laneways’ cultural vibrancy with formal art programs might be as useful as promoting street art by covering it in Plexiglas. Public art is important. Living in cities that don’t suck, where everything hasn’t been sold off to the highest bidder and reduced to the most expenditure efficient formula is important. But it’s up to us all to influence and evaluate the art around us and not simply leave it to developers and council committees to set it in stone for the ages.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Lucy Apr 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I don’t know that cities need ephemeral public art at the *expense* of permanent art. There needs to be a comfortable mix of both. Good public art can be a fantastic city feature, yet unfortunately public art boards don’t always get it right. You just have to wander around Hobart city and witness all the horrific Stephen Walker bronze eyesores to come to that conclusion.

    Tasmania and Queensland are lucky enough to have Art for Public Buildings schemes, where it’s compulsory to set aside a certain amount of money for public artworks when renovating or building any public building. While there are still some questionable public artworks being chosen through the scheme, the sheer mass of public artworks approved means that we have some very good quality and lasting artworks in the state. Plus it’s a great employment opportunity for artists (governments aren’t nearly as keen to pay artists producing temporary works of art).