What is public art?
Public art is art displayed in public spaces, including sculpture, painting and other artistic mediums. It can be permanent or temporary. One of the most important things about public art is the connection between the work and the community - it is accessible to all, displayed for free and for the enjoyment of passersby. It reflects the values of the place, culture and environment. This type of art is not commercial and will often deal with local or universal social issues.
Why is it important to have art in public spaces?
The value of public artworks is very significant for the city in which the work is displayed in cultural, social and economic terms. As mentioned, the role of public art is to reflect society and communicate with it, as well as add uniqueness to the city and give broader and deeper meaning to the space in which it is displayed. Public art has the power to make the urban environment more human and connect the city to the local community, representing its identity and attracting audiences from outside to visit the city.
In a capitalist world where cities tend to be so similar to each other and lack uniqueness, public art breaks the repetitive urban pattern and gives the city its uniqueness, similar to historical icons or exceptional buildings. A public artwork will usually be particularly large in scale, allowing the artist to fulfill a vision that would not have been possible had it remained within the confines of a gallery or museum, and also involves the work of a large team of professionals - planners, engineers, designers and more, making the work a collaborative one. The artist conceives the idea and oversees the planning process, problem solving and execution carried out by the appropriate professionals, under the artistic spirit of the artist.
Sometimes such a work will be commissioned by an official body (governmental, municipal) or will be the artist's own initiative. In most cases there will be a funding body as the costs of such works can reach astronomical sums, and here we can see very large gaps between different cities around the world - municipalities that have more resources and ability to invest in culture and art versus areas where art is pushed to the margins in the economic priority order.
Is street art considered public art?
This question has several different answers, depending on who you ask. Literally, street art, an artistic genre identified with murals that evolved from graffiti and became mainstream and legitimate in the last two decades, is art displayed in public spaces and holds some of the characteristics we mentioned earlier - it is accessible to all, often reflects the local place and culture, communicates with the community and may deal with social issues. However, in recent years we encounter many murals that are completely commercial and made by artists commissioned by commercial companies, businesses and private bodies. This fact may not detract from their aesthetic value and the interest they generate, but it is clear that they serve very different purposes than the works we discussed today.
Here are some examples of sculptures in the urban public space:
The Mastaba, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Hyde Park, London
The artist couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known around the world for their large-scale, powerful and ambitious projects displayed in various places around the world. One of the guiding principles of their work is to alter the visibility and functionality of the public space in which they operate and then return it to its original state.
In the summer of 2018 they presented The Mastaba, a colorful and impressive installation that was on display for three months on the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, London. The structure is made up of 7,506 horizontally stacked barrels and sits on a 30 x 40 meters floating platform. The vibrant colors were reflected in the lake waters as a beautiful colorful abstract painting, adding another layer to the work. The project was created with ecological consideration for the environment and its living creatures and was self-funded by the artists.
This is also Christo's last public project, as he passed away in 2020.
The Seed, Asmaa Waly, Jubilee Park, Abu Dhabi
This installation was built to celebrate the UAE's National Day and was first unveiled in December 2020 as part of a large exhibition called "Seeds of the Union".
The cubic structure sits on the water behind Abu Dhabi's urban landscapes. Cryptic video works are projected onto the structure as it rotates on its axis, including lighting, sound and music.
The impressive project was conceived by British artist and production designer Asmaa Waly, known for her impressive immersive installations combining light, video, text and sound.
The seed concept is symbolic, representing the growth and flourishing of the UAE.
We Rise By Lifting Others, Marinella Senatore, Florence
2020 will forever be remembered as a year of social isolation, collective fear and staying home. At the end of this complex year, the Italian artist Marinella Senatore creates a stunning light installation in the Piazza Strozzi in Florence. The installation invites viewers to reflect on ideas of community, human closeness and solidarity at a time when social distancing is required of all of us and becomes part of the reality around the world.
The installation, over 10 meters high and made up of hundreds of LED lamps, was built in collaboration with local artists from southern Italy. The square is a public space where you can meet while maintaining social distance. The name of the installation reflects the artist's intention to portray people's need for human closeness.
Ebb of a Spring Tide, Mary Mattingly, Socrates Sculpture Park, New York
New York artist Mary Mattingly presents her first large-scale work in the public sphere, at Socrates Sculpture Park. The installation examines the relationships between marine and river ecological systems and water flow in urban spaces. The nearly 20-meter tall sculpture was built on site near the East River and includes water pipes, scaffolding, vegetation (some edible) in a construction that mimics the horizon line of New York's buildings. The water flowing in the pipes that irrigates the vegetation comes from the river. The artist tries to reflect the delicate balance between ecological systems and life on earth. The sculpture was launched in April this year and will stand until September 10th.
Untitled, Dov Feigin, Independence Garden, Tel Aviv
We'll end with an original Israeli work by artist Dov Feigin located in Independence Garden in Tel Aviv since 1982.
It is a modernist geometric abstract iron sculpture standing at the entrance to the garden and is strongly identified with the environment and the city of Tel Aviv. The square shape, red color and size conduct an interesting dialogue with the very specific placement of the sculpture standing on its corners - stability versus instability, dynamism versus stasis, permanent versus ephemeral.
Feigin, an important Israeli sculptor who was a member of the Ofakim Hadashim group, was influenced by modernist sculptors like Picasso and Julio González and developed his own unique style of working with metal surfaces that generate dynamic compositions.
This is a limited selection of public space works that create an interesting dynamic between the environment and the artwork. Over the years this art genre has become more sophisticated and developed, and today in any major city you visit you will find impressive and fascinating works. Even in public spaces that are not urban such as nature sites, parks and more remote areas, you can find stunning art in its beauty, and we will discuss that in a follow-up article soon.