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Public Sculpture - an essay ~ DCA

situate - International Arts Competition

A commentary on Public Sculpture by Penny Bovell

Supposing cities were sculpture parks. What if architecture was large sculpture and sculpture was small architecture? And, what if nature was art and art was nature?

Public sculpture, a flourishing art form: The above scenarios point to the dynamic nature of public sculpture. The feasibility would need lengthy discussion and result in some interesting and heated debates. Yet, we must agree that outstanding sculpture requires talent and training. Even if solutions to sculpture diminish to the simplest of things, the arrival at the simplicity would be the result of a complex set of thoughts, behaviours, and circumstances.

Sculpture, generally, is associated with methods of production that shape or build forms , reuse, deconstruct or distort objects that already exist (such as things from the every day).  Sculptors are concerned with how people see and touch single, multiple or dispersed objects, whilst others focus on space and peoples interaction with it. These different modes need highlighting as entrants for the Competition were invited to consider how their sculptures would activate the space as well as convey civic presence. The title of the competition reinforced the preference for sculpture because situate by definition means to put something in a particular place or position. What a rare and exciting opportunity for sculptors.

Why sculpture? Public art, as a specialist field, is valuable for the reason that it can contribute to the effective design of the built environment.One value is specific to the aesthetics, which entails sensitive integration with the space and look of a place. However, most artists would agree that sculpture in public spaces has another purpose, one that speaks to people about the nature of experience and the transformation of perceptions. It is raising the awareness of place, space, and ourselves that helps to promotes civic pride. How we affect the world and how the world affects us, is perhaps a clearer explanation.

The chance to explore such a large and aspiring subject is one particularly available to public sculpture. Large sculptors are quite literally distinctive in their presence and placement and they present as significant markers, which by implication connect the micro with the macro. The choice of subject, the object itself, its materials, position, and orientation are aspects intended to contribute interesting and enduring conversations.

Debates and controversy: Public sculpture often creates debate and controversy. Sometimes, artists make grand gestures in the hope of reaching the public at large. Their intentions are often misinterpreted as acts of disregard by the public however, art historical examples indicate artists are more likely attempting to shift their immediate audiences' perceptions. In other words they are acutely aware of the public. Auguste Rodin's numerous unconventional memorials of the late 1800's and Richard Serra's Tilted Arc of 1981 are two such cases.

If sculptors have been provocative or misunderstood in the past, contemporary sculptors enrich the built environment and contribute to civic presence by including the enduring conversations (and lessons) provided by art history. Jeff Koon's Puppy and Anish Kapoor's Cloudgate are examples of 'well places and well timed' public sculpture which aim to be 'shockingly simple, accessible and pleasurable.' For more about these artists search: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/24/arts/design/24smit.html?pagewanted=all

Why the art history lesson? The basis for criticism of public art is often about degrees of constraint, limitation, interpretation, necessity, and value. It is irritating and disappointing when public art or sculpture is insensitive to space, misrepresentative of people, used as cosmetic advertising, or deployed to mask unsightly urban development. The combination of issues might appear fraught however; the success of public art programs presents an entirely different story. Community involvement flourishes, artists earn reasonable livings, and new practices are being established. Collaboration in the concept and design phase and consultation at the planning stage of developments is an important aspect for developing the field.

In one sense, public space has become an extension of gallery or museum space, the task of consultants similar to that of curators, and the expectations of clients correspond to expectations of gallery directors and collectors. The transitions between histories, places and spaces indicate that Art and Design professionals and the public are participating in a vital debate about space and place.