Alex Wisser

photocentric

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WHO’S AFRAID OF PUBLIC ART?

by Alex Wisser

This essay was originally commissioned for an art magazine that will remain nameless.  It was ultimately rejected, for reasons that were obscure and confusing to me.  I  shelved the essay for several years until recently tripped across it while thinking about an artwork I am currently making that relates to public artwork.  Giving it another read, I thought that this was indeed a good essay and the editor who rejected it probably didn’t know what they were on about.  So here it is.  Let me know if its crap.

I was recently invited to curate an exhibition of public art.  It was an intriguing offer, if only for the fact that I don’t particularly like public art.  In considering the proposal, I had to ask myself if I could put together a decent show in a medium I’m not fond of?  It was a good question, and so I accepted.

To be accurate, its not so much that I don’t like public art as that I am acutely ambivalent about it.  I avoid it at every opportunity.  In my efforts to recall a significant instance of considered engagement with the genre, all I could manage was an image of myself hurrying under the shadow of some hulking monolith, eyes averted as I attempted to evade the affect of its domination.

 

It is appropriate then that the first work I will address is one that I have never seen.  This is because it has been removed from its place of display due to public outcry.  Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc 1981, was a 120 ft long, 12 ft high slab of Cor-Ten steel that tilted precariously as it dissected Federal Plaza in Manhattan.  The sheer mass of this rusty wall leant above the viewer in a looming expression of the force of gravity, both sustaining it and implying the threat of its collapse.  The physical being of the material is made to confront the viewer through the threat it posed or implied to their body, compelling them into an awareness of the embodied nature of the experience of the work. In other words it functioned via intimidation.  Furthermore, you literally couldn’t avoid it.  It cut across the plaza, interrupting the openness of the public space and compelling its ‘audience’ to traipse around it in a gesture of imposed inconvenience.

For this reason, I can identify with those who argued for its removal.  While the physical scale, and material permanence of public art is often the source of its intimidation, it is also confronting in its subject position.  Public art is never the isolated statement of an artist, but is composited of those civic forces that must combine in order for a work of art to claim its place on the public stage.  Both the historical weight and the social body of any work of public art is confronting in its scale relative to the subject position of the individual who walks past it.  In this, the experience of public art is always the experience of one’s own relationship to power.  This is more immediately evident in the traditional statuary of historical figures, but persists even in the most benign of modern installations.

Contemporary artist Cigdem Aydemir exploited this dimension of public art in her work, Plastic Histories by shrink-wrapping in pink plastic the bronze statues of white male historical figures in the South African town of Bloemfontain.  These statues litter the regional city as remnants of its colonial past, depicting men who had participated in some of its darker moments.  Despite South Africa’s relatively recent political reversal, these monuments remain in place as residue of that history.  Cigdem’s work was a direct attempt to lift the veil of banality in which these statues subsist.  In doing so, she confronted their public with the history the statues were intended to proudly represent, but now hide from view as objects of repressed memory.  The demand of the contemporary artist that we face this history and the society it has produced is a confronting challenge, requiring of its audience the resolve to lift and keep our eyes upon it.

And yet, this does not relieve me of my ambivalence.  While I can identify with the office workers who rejected Stella’s Tilted Arc, I am also aware that opposition to it was reactionary in nature.  The removal of a work of public art is an expression of the same civic forces that resolve in its commissioning.  There is some truth in the argument in defense of Tilted Arc, that its detractors disliked the work because it challenged their conventional expectation of both art and public space.

At almost the same time that Tilted Arc was being commissioned, another work of art was being removed from a public square in Melbourne’s CBD.  Ron Robertson Swann’s Vault had none of the arrogant provocation of Tilted Arc, though it was bright yellow, abstract and completely foreign to the taste and understanding of the local newspapers and council factions.  Even Queen Elizabeth, on opening the square, commented that it might have been done in a more pleasing color.  After a vitriolic campaign, it was removed to a park on the banks of the Yarra River.  Robertson-Swann, who had not intended to offend anyone, felt that had the sculpture been allowed to remain, it would have eventually achieved acceptance.  “If something new comes into the world then it takes a while for taste and sensibility to adjust”. [1] And if history is anything to go by, he was right.  It is now proudly displayed in front of ACCA, an art space, where it can be safely ignored like any other public artwork.

The queen’s comment was perhaps most acute, because it does make us ask whether art must forgo its capacity to challenge norms, to shock or make its viewer’s uncomfortable.  Does it need to be pleasing if we are to live with it in our public spaces?   This question is almost beside the point because aside from any particular challenge an artist does or does not intend, the nature of public art is challenging.  And perhaps this is the source of public art’s power to deflect human gaze: it occupies a space I believe or understand, on some level, to belong to me.  The presence of an object resulting from and thus expressing specific values, interests, and positions of influence within a space that belongs to everyone confronts us with a sense of our ownership through its violation.

The act of ignoring a work of public art is at once a defiant refusal to validate its function as art by withholding one’s participation as viewer and at the same time an abnegation of that highly ambivalent birthright, one’s share of ownership as a member of the public in public space.  One’s relationship to a public artwork contains the relationship to those structures of power that made the work possible and before it we feel something of our own subjection.  Though this might seem a pessimistic analysis, it has another side to it. This collision brings us into contact with our own investment in and responsibility for the society that surrounds that space – it confronts us with our civic self.  This is exactly what Cigdem Aydemir was attempting to aggravate, not to generate a consideration of art, but a consideration of the social and political context it occupies.

To return to the dilemma of the proposed exhibition of public art: as I was reflecting on the proposed exhibition, I happened to drive down the back street of my hometown of Kandos.  On the side of an industrial shed, in bright pink letters, the words “We just want to throw flowers at the world” proclaimed themselves in a gesture of absurd enthusiasm.  The work, by Genevieve Carroll, was a hangover from the past Cementa festival.  The exuberant good will of its statement, flashing like a bright smile from the grimy face of an industrial shed made me stop.  I was not intimidated by it, but caught by its cheerful absurdity.  The humility of its position, so far from public prominence that the work escaped the burden of self-importance that so much public art suffers from. It embellished instead a place of industry, buried on the back street of a small country town.  It’s strangely empty subject-position, ‘we’ includes me if I identify with it, but if not can imply a specific subject speaking in a joyful tone, a message of nonsense that is more the expression of an emotional tenor than any kind of direct statement.

I can sift through the qualities of the work, rationalizing my affection for it, but try as I like, I cannot dispel the troubling suspicion that I like it because it expresses specific values with which I identify.  In fact, as a co-director of the festival that brought this work into the town, I directly participate in those civic forces that made it possible. My perspective is far from universal, and it is all too likely that some of the locals might not like it at all.  For them, the work would be but an imposition of bizarre and alien values, interests and positions of influence that have coalesced to adorn a town they rightly felt belonged to them with an object they would have little context for understanding.

There is no moment at which the ambivalence of public art resolves itself into the unified expression of the public sphere it inhabits.  This is because the public of public space is always multiple, disparate and permeated by difference.  Despite any ideological presumption of unity it is always a site of at least implicit contestation.  Whether one defend, attack or ignore it, any response to public art is implicated in the contradiction between the unity presumed by the term ‘public’ and the viewer’s particular difference to others within it.  In other words, it uncomfortably presents us with our own specific place, our own subject position relative to other, often competing positions within the public space it inhabits.

[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-05/vault-yellow-peril-sculpture-tributes-scattered-across-melbourne/7248702

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The Colour for the Air.

by Alex Wisser

Catalogue Essay for Perception (Colour, Air) Leo Cremonese

Bird’s Hut is, to say the least, a mixed environment.  The land itself is a scrappy bit of bush with steep cliffs rising up on two sides that wrap around a small clearing through which a deeply sunken creek bed flows.  A 19th Century shepherd’s hut is its chief architectural feature, and though predominantly intact, it has clearly suffered from decades of abuse and neglect that mix its rustic ruin with jarring modern accents of graffiti and repair.  The clearing is littered with several old cars and odd flimsy structures showing signs of weather and gravity.  Despite the ‘mixed environment’, Bird’s Hut has a kempt appearance.  Nevertheless, every broken artefact that sits within its frame argues with the natural environment, and the conflict disrupts the peaceful unity that the visitor is tempted to compose out of its idyllic context.

It is a challenging setting for an art exhibition, to say the least, as any object placed within its field of vision is necessarily drawn into and absorbed by the shear complexity of detail, from the speculation of sunlight in the leaves of every tree to flakes of paint and the objects of rust and the warping water-stained wood of a collapsing caravan.  There is a reason that art appears most regularly between white walls where, detached from the messiness of the world, it can assume its heightened object status as the thing itself: the art object.  At birds hut, the art object struggles to maintain its special status. The world in its plenum threatens to demote it into just another thing, another bit of junk littering this remnant of nature.

The temptation, I suppose, would be to compete: to create work that would somehow overwhelm the visual ‘noise’ of the environment with the magnitude of its presence, to create an object that would somehow maintain its self-sufficiency despite the world crowding around it with the cacophonous demands of its infinite field of relationship.  Leo Cremonese takes a more subtle approach, and one, I would argue, that is more satisfying than any such conquest.  He abandons the object for the air.

Perhaps I overstate, for he does not quite abandon the object.  There are objects in this exhibition, you will be relieved to learn, art objects, but they all discard self-sufficiency for their relation to the world around them.  This is established emphatically in a work that initiates the exhibition. “Yellow” is encountered as one enters Bird’s Hut itself, a large, finely crafted plywood cube occupies a small alcove to the right, one leg of the L shaped room.  A banner-like painting covers an entire wall of the alcove.  Between the painting and the box is enough room for an audience member to squeeze into an opening that allows access to the blackened interiority of the cube.  It is awkward, and slightly undignified, but after settling oneself inside, your attention inevitably turns to the opening through which you have just clambered.  Through its absolute frame, the world outside glows in a shear plane of yellow, your vision constrained to this rectangular perspective onto the yellow colour field that dominates the bottom 2/3rds of the draped painting.  It is serene and beautiful, and you might be drawn to linger within it. Do so, and you will begin to notice that what you are looking at is not the luminous surface of the painting, but the luminous atmosphere between the box in which you sit and the colour field at which you gaze.

”Yellow” 2018, mixed media installation

In a sense, this first work enacts the title of the exhibition and orients the viewer to what will come.

There is another work in the same room, but in order to describe it we must begin again from outside the hut and approach it across a large blue carpet spread over the open ground.  The carpet is old and looks as though it has lain on the ground for years, worn by the elements until it almost belongs to the earth around it. Inside the hut another two carpets of a similar condition cover the floor and upon one of them stands another contraption. This time it is a swing. Looking a little bit like a guillotine, it faces another banner painting, umber red draped from the ceiling of the hut.  Approaching across the carpets, I was struck by the relationship communicated between these rectangles of colour and the painting draped on the far wall.  I wondered if this was an intentional effect, carefully aligned by the artist to emphasise the family resemblance between the carpets and painting.  Were these carpets art or artefacts?  Whatever mental interrogation I made, the result was always an amplification of the ambiguity I was attempting to dispel.  In the end I had to resign myself to the awareness that these objects held their relationship to the artwork, and that I could not exclude them from my experience of it.  If these old carpets pulled the artwork into the world, the painting pulled the carpets into its own sphere as art.  Any further attempt to isolate the one from the other was absurd, and so I submitted myself to the guillo… swing.

I sat in its cradle and began to rock myself towards the painting, until I had a civilised swing going. I dutifully attempted to absorb myself in the surface of the painting, attempting to measure the experience through the novelty of having my body in motion, my point of perspective in constant vacillation.  I must admit that I was not very successful.  It was difficult to concentrate on  the picture plane as my body swung through space, the knuckles of my fingers threatened with  scraping by the supports from which I was suspended as the weight of my middle aged body strained to collapse the whole machine in its compulsion to return to earth.  Even beyond the sense of embodied alarm, the contraption disrupts the stasis with which the viewer customarily absorbs themselves in the surface of the painting.  The whole work is designed to deny to the viewer those conventional conditions in which abstraction occurs, in which we forget both our body and the world, and loose ourselves to the picture plane, becoming the viewer.  If Cremonese refuses the art object its abstraction from the world around it, insisting as he does that it has no existence unto itself, he also refuses his audience that same abstraction from the world in which we traditionally loose our bodies in the contemplation of idealised or idealising objects.

In fact if there is a single consistent object that unifies this exhibition, I would say it was the human body.  Across the breadth of the exhibition, my body was the one thing I was made constantly aware of, as the works required that I scramble up a treacherous hillside, teeter on an uncertain tree stump or lay down in the undercarriage of a tree.  There is a sense that Leo is continuing, counter intuitively, the thread of minimalism, which also emphasised the embodied experience of the artwork.  Minimalism emphasised the relationship of the art object to the viewer by acknowledging the embodied viewer as contributing to the experience of the work.  They did this though by reducing the relations internal to the object to compose a gestalt or in Judd’s term “Specific Objects” and often using large scale to produce a sense of ‘whole’ objects.  Cremonese inverts this relationship by creating works that physically impose a self awareness on the body of the viewer and at the same time reduce the specific object status of the artwork that opens it to the entire relational field of the world around it.

In the end, the blurring of the lines between the world, the artwork and the viewer draw one to a singular conclusion, if you can even call it that.  As with the carpets, your attention is drawn constantly away from those things you know to be art works towards objects who’s status is more ambivalent, a pile of stones, an ‘arrangement’ of twigs, even the seemingly ordered way that fallen branches are distributed through the undercarriage of the trees.  The eye wanders to the horizons, until you see mountains and the trees and the stones, you notice the composition of the objects littering the site of Birds Hut and it is at this point that you might understand the artist’s intention.  His objects, instead of drawing you into themselves as inherent sites of meaning, constantly refer you outward, indicating the world around them.  Perhaps you might see this world as I did, with the idea that you are the artist, absorbed in the act of perceiving the world, of observing the molten relation of parts, the intangibility of light and colour, your attention constantly drawn between the swarm of detail and the stabilising vision of the whole.  Is this not what art is meant to do: to produce an awareness of the world that exceeds our awareness of those things which refer to that world?

”Orange” 2018, mixed media installation