Athenaeum Panel discusses art in public spaces

In the second of a two-part series sponsored by CMC’s Gould Center for Humanistic Studies and the Public Art Committee, the topic of public art in the public domain was discussed by a panel of internationally recognized artists, museum curators and scholars.

The discussion which took place on November 4 at the Marion Miner Cook Athenaeum challenged the idea of the “public” in public art by examinng the transformative and educational potential that lies in any encounter with art outside the white cube.

Panelists included Paris-based Swiss artist, Thomas HirschhornJeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, TX; and Emi Fontana, Italian-born founder and executive and creative director of West of Rome Public Art, a public art initiative based in Los Angeles.

Philipp Kaiser, former curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and currently Director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany co-moderated the discussion. Kaiser is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Gould Center. The other moderator was Professor Robert Faggen, Director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies and Professor of Literature at CMC.

“Work in public spaces is fun; often more fun than work exhibited in a gallery because you are confronted with the unexpected and with conflict,” said Hirschhorn. “It’s not about what category art might conveniently fit into. All art must fight for it’s own legitimacy. It must come from it’s own affirmation as a work of art whether in a gallery in a public space or anywhere else.”

One of Hirschhorn’s seminal public art projects was the Gramsci Monument he designed and built in a public housing project in The Bronx. It was named after the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci and was the first project that Hirschhorn built in the United States and the fourth and final such work in a series he began many years ago dedicated to his favorite philosophers. From the beginning, the monuments have been planned and constructed in housing projects occupied mostly by the poor and working class, with the residents’ agreement and help.

“To me it’s important when I’m invited to do a project in a public space to find the space myself,” Hirschhorn said. “In a museum when you are an invited artist and happy to exhibit, you have either the big gallery or the small gallery – you cannot really choose the space. But in public space, you can choose. This is important because it says something about your work.

“For the Gramsci Monument, I went to 42 public housing spaces in all five boroughs of New York City to do my field work to try to find out the perfect space for the monument,” he continued.  “It was about a 1 ½-year process.”

In discursive monuments like Hirschhorn’s that appear and then completely disappear in a couple month’s time, the artwork is about memory not about duration.

“I sense eternity as something vertical, something intensive,” Hirschhorn said. “You must be ready for it; attentive. I am not looking for eternity in a horizontal, long timeline view. The Gramsci Monument like my other projects in public spaces, was time-limited. They are precarious … they fight to get life.”

After about 2 ½ months, the monument was dismantled (in 10 days) with the material and tools that created the artwork raffled off to people in the neighborhood where it stood.

“The time-limited duration of the artwork permits me to be involved personally,” Hirschhorn said. “I call it ‘presence and production.’ It was a presence and production project because I was there all the time and I produced something. That’s the advantage of a time-limited art project – it permits the artist to be there everyday.”

For Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, presenting public art on a citywide canvas was the challenge.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Nasher, in 2013, presented Nasher XChange, a dynamic public art exhibition consisting of 10 newly-commissioned public sculptures by contemporary artists at 10 sites throughout the city of Dallas.

Covering a diverse range of neighborhoods and approaches to sculpture, Nasher XChange was the first citywide, museum-organized public art exhibition in the U.S., and was inspired by the Center’s founders, Raymond and Patsy Nasher’s enduring legacy of making art accessible to all with the opening of NorthPark Center (an upscale shopping mall) almost 50 years ago.

The Nasher commissioned artists Lara Almarcegui, Rachel Harrison, Alfredo Jaar, Charles Long, Liz Larner, Rick Lowe, Vicki Meek, Ruben Ochoa, Ugo Rondinone, and Good/Bad Art Collective to create works for the Nasher XChange exhibition. Nasher XChange then encouraged viewers to discover Dallas through the public art located throughout the city.

“Nasher XChange was a show about public art, surveying the radically different approaches artists art taking to public work, but it’s also a show about Dallas,” Strick said. “Each site chosen was important and distinctive, and each said something different about the past, present – and future – of the city.”

Strick explained that creating a museum exhibition outside the walls of the museum demonstrated that there is very little you can control in a public space. “At the same time,” he said.  “There’s satisfaction at the response of the public which was amazing and gratifying. We are asked frequently if and when we’re going to do it again. We will! It’s made us think we want to create a program of commissioning work outside the museum a regular part of our exhibition program.”

For Emi Fontana, living in Los Angeles and creating art in public spaces there (West of Rome was launched in 2005) presents a special set of circumstances. “Fiction and reality mingle in L.A. constantly,” she said. “It makes you think. Where does the public sphere stand in relation to fiction -- or vice versa. In public practice, there is often something fictional. It’s just a question to think about.”

According to Hirschhorn, every artwork is never a total success or failure. In the arena of public art as in the rarified purlieus of art galleries and museums, beauty or relevance is in the eye of the beholder.