Public installations

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'A combination of two critical elements is required for art controversies to erupt: there must be a sense that values have been threatened, and power must be mobilized in response to do something about it'

Public installations are one of the most powerful ways to create an interaction between art and the viewer and as attitudes to cities are changing, the place of art, as an imaginative presence is gaining recognition. 'The role of art is to transform spaces into places and the public into people without contradiction', art has this by being personal and being shared. This essay will explore what we define as acceptable public art by investigating into Richard Serra's Tilted Arc- one of the most controversial pieces of work in the 1980's, and how sculptural orientation to space and place can alter the viewers perception and emotion towards the art. I have always had an appreciation for abstract and minimalist art, and have always considered what could be classed as criterion for respectable pieces. After examining the case of Tilted Arc, I felt passionate that the piece did not receive the appreciation it deserved, which then led to me thinking what in particular led to its downfall, and reminded me of how important spatial orientation is within design. I will be looking closely into public reactions to the piece, how it altered the spatial layout of Federal Plaza it was situated in and the philosophy of Serra's work in general.

The main text of this dissertation will examine two pieces of public art, similar in location and size- only differing in reaction and acceptance from "the public" '(in this case meaning the larger general public- i.e. the people, and the smaller art world- i.e. the elite)'. Both studies will also delve into the key issues surrounding public art as well as how settings can have a psychological effect on our everyday activity. I will also visit public spaces that occupy art and gain an understanding of how it may have affected my experience, in comparison to the space being empty. I hope to conclude what in particular makes a piece of public art successful, and the level of significance they play in changing the way people interact in a space. I will consider whether artists should be willing to make adjustments to their work in order to cater for the public, and importantly, what is the distinction between making art for public place as opposed to gallery space?


The term 'public art' generally refers to work that has been commissioned for sites of open public access; the term 'site specific' is also used to describe art made for installation in a particular site. There are two different starting points when constructing a case for pubic art- 'tradition and actuality', tradition establishing an awareness of other cultures, as well as how we build our own, and also understanding the realities of public space. There are many arguments for public art; it engages the people who use the space, it gives a sense of place and it also gives a model of imaginative work. However art needs to be more than a cosmetic intervention if it is to become a catalyst for well being in the city. Installation is defined as any arrangement of art objects in a designated space defined by the artist, and artists in the 1980's in particular required the presence of the viewer to complete the work, which they claimed could not be completed any other way.

To date, public art, which has forceful content, has mainly been relegated to minor sites, while the prominent sites such as Broadgate in London, exhibit huge sculptural steel structures by Richard Serra and other minimalists. In all cases of pubic art, success depends upon real solutions and gaining an understanding of the identity of a place, including its physical location, the people who use the space and the local history. It can be problematic to identify space and there is a clear responsibility to involve the public when defining the character of the work. In residential areas, there is an identifiable community- similarly in a school or hospital, prison or factory, there is a group which live there, however in a public square it is more difficult to assess who should be consulted as the people using the space are unpredictable. It is essential to involve them when defining the character of their place through art.

Public art since the 19th century has hardly ever served as anything more than embellishment for the pedestrian plaza. 'This decorative status has made art acceptable in public space, but not as public space.' SITE, INC. is a group of artists, writers, and technicians organized in New York City in 1969 for the purpose of developing new concepts for the use of art in the urban environment. Public art generally remains as an inflated version of gallery aesthetic transformed for use in a park or plaza. SITE's work becomes 'site-oriented' and is conceived as an intrinsic part of a given context. Solutions are not intended to establish formal relationships, but instead to provide a source of information within the cityscape. It suggests the existing conditions- architecture, functional mechanisms, can be used to renovate the original intention of an urban place.

'Public art serves many purposes, but none can have more point and dignity than that of investing a public space with a renewed vitality, extending its availability as a place to be, in which a sense of identity of the possibilities of the civil life, are enhanced.'

The successful permanent public art work, whatever its scale, promotes a heightened awareness of social space. Public possession of a space and its objects is consequently political and imaginative. Political in the sense, that democracy claims our streets, parks, squares and commons, and imaginative, in that buildings and objects, and their dispositions in public space, create conditions for civilized living. The failure of much public art to create a community is linked to its location within the culture of modernism, in which the artists' interests conflict with the publics. Interaction within a public space can be greatly effected by spatial layout and planning, which is often observed through postcard views of a city.

It is important when evaluating public art to consider the changing ideas of the city which are produced by social structures of power and value, including the representation of space and its gendering, and the role of monuments controlling urban publics. City form is not neutral, it is imbued with ideologies which can be noticed in orthogonal street plans of Greek cities, and both the desire for purity and the analytical viewpoint lead to the division of the twentieth- century western city. This suggests how public art may play a role in the disruption of the ideal urban space and who in particular would rebel against its effect. 'Separation of one thing from the other in order to privilege one- self over environment, city over landscape, theory over practice- characterises the planning of a modern city'. In the early twentieth century, town planning became a specialist discipline, the technique of single-use zoning separated spaces of domestic life from those of government (the civic centre), consumption (shopping malls) and labour (industrial estates and business parks). Even the house, too, is divided into rooms of a single function and the principles that physical space should be allocated is rarely challenged in urban planning.

'Public art is notoriously ill defined.' It is often regarded as synonymous with 'sculpture in the open air' and critic Lawrence Alloway suggested it takes 'more than an outdoor site to make sculpture public'. It is intended to be produced for and owned by the community, whether the community chooses to participate in its construction. It may be the product of state intervention or corporate investment, which leads to the question of how far the public desires are considered in this type of situation. 'Its relationship to its context is equally variable; it may be 'packet art', 'parachuted in' or 'site-specific'. It may ultimately represent a battleground between the artist's freedom of expression, and the public's right to choose.' These qualities imply that public art is object-based and static. However public art does not necessarily require any of these characteristics, it could be defined as a political intervention and may not even develop in the form of visual art.

The intent of the artist may not be what comes across to the viewer, but never the less the emotional intent will have an effect. This speculation links into the idea of how a piece representing something in particular can define what is classed as 'acceptable public art'. In many cases, minimal art has stood strong when it has symbolised an historical event or historical figure. For example Sol Le Witt's 'Black Form Dedicated to the Missing Jews' has remained in the forecourt of Münster Castle since 1987 and has yet to produce arguments against it or cause dispute.

'Public space (broadly defined) relates to all parts of the natural and built environment, public and private, internal and external, urban and rural, where the public have free, although not necessarily unrestricted, access.' These spaces serve a variety of functions including being places for meeting, conversing and eating and 'yet there is an additional dimension to public space'. Public space can fulfil certain psychological requirements, meaning emotions and behaviour, as well as physical demands. Artists sometimes note when designing public art, how well people can adapt to their surroundings which can lead to an influence in changing the whole design of space. In terms of designing successful public spaces, its helps to gain an understanding of how people are most likely to take action to the space available, and how they will make it work for them. Some of this links back to basic human characteristics such as territoriality and interpersonal distance, whereas other responses involve psychological effects including interpretation, sense of safety, intrigue and curiosity.

It is always difficult to assign your own territory within public space, as it belongs to everyone, which then leads to the matter of interpersonal distance. In everyday situations we find ourselves distancing from others in public space, for example by facing another direction or sitting in unoccupied spaces. However when the spaces become more confined we find ourselves sitting next to strangers, which in turn increases our discomfort and suspicion. This suggests what limits there are within public art installations in respect to how they divide up open areas. It also poses the question of how they contribute to the space becoming congested, and whether this would this influence the reception the piece receives from the viewer due to its impact on their psychological status?

'Interpersonal distance will (if there is any choice) be determined by the activities people are engaged in, in public space.' People who are there to relax and 'watch the world go by' will aim to be further away from others that may be hoping to have some kind of casual interaction, who in turn would be a slight distance from those who are interacting with close friends. Good public space offers the opportunity for all these types of engagement to occur, if the area has been hard landscaped then careful consideration must be taken within the location of seating and ledges for leaning on. In particular 'Homi Bhabha's concept of 'relational specificity' as a way of thinking about the particularity of the relationships between objects, people and spaces positioned', should be considered greatly in order to accomplish success within the reconstruction of public space.

People want a sense of safety and coherence in public spaces; however they do not desire blandness. One of the psychological attractions of a good public space is the guarantee that it will assure our natural curiosity. We like to be intrigued with the idea that a space holds more than what initially meets the eye and of we move through it we may uncover more of its mysteries. However people are skilled at 'reading' to which an unfamiliar place appears to be safe or unsafe. This is a fundamental aspect which significantly determines whether or not they will choose to remain in that space. This not only involves studying the people using the space but also assessing the physical attributes of the space by gauging the amount of light and potential hiding spots. The design of public space should allow for clear views and easy refuge or departure.

Connected into the psychological experiences of the space are its aesthetics, influenced by the surrounding architecture and embellishment. These are factors which should be taken into consideration when conceiving art installation ideas to be housed within the space. Dominant structures may be better suited to places which would support the idea of its spatial significance, and could increase the level of appreciation and approval it receives from the public. The public show a higher level of respect to pieces of art that represent a significant event in history no matter what their aesthetic qualities, which leads to the question of how much attention an artist pays to the site they will be working in, in order to make the work integrate when they know they are envisioning a memorial piece.


One of the most controversial pieces of work in the 1980's was Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc", this disruptive structure combined the built environment with art and caused so much disquiet, it was removed and destroyed within only eight years. Yet what determined it's downfall, when America at the time was encouraging the commissioning of large scale sculpture, and how do we define what in particular makes public art acceptable?

In 1979, Richard Serra was commissioned to conceive a sculpture for the Manhattan Federal Plaza site, to which he envisioned a large steel arc to divide the space. Two years later, the concept was supported, granted permission to be constructed and Tilted Arc was installed. However, only four years after construction, a meeting was called by the New York regional manager, in order to discuss the relocation of the sculpture in order to "increase public use of the plaza". Although the majority were in favour of retaining Tilted Arc, the panel recommended relocation and the General Services Administration's acting administrator tried in vain to find alternative locations to house the piece, completely dismissing the original intention of the artist to produce a site-specific piece of art. 'Following many of Serra's unsuccessful legal actions, in 1989 Tilted Arc was removed'. In terms of what determines the desire of public art, Serra seemed to have accomplished many of the aspects required from the piece. It gave a sense of space by defining the area and creating two intimate halves of the plaza as opposed to one large open space, which in turn led to the public interacting around the sculpture. In terms of grotesque appearance and vulgarity, Tilted Arc showed no link, yet it created so much negativity- so what exactly did the public believe made the work bad enough to be torn down, and how does this compare to other pieces of public art?

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole Tilted Arc controversy was the sources of public response that were found arguing against the piece. Most public opinion regarding Serra's piece was expressed in the hearing testimony, letters, published critical writing, newspaper articles and television footage. It appeared only those who were motivated enough to do so responded in the form of verbal testimony or written statements, and they may not have even represented any population of the Federal Plaza. In 1985 there were some 10,000 employees within the plaza, and although the hearing produced more than seven hundred pages of testimony, it was represented by fewer than two hundred people. 'Of these, only some fifty were federal employees. It has been suggested that the public hearing may have been intimidating (certainly the media circus surrounding it was)', but it is suspected that the disproportion had something to do with the structure of bureaucracy.

'Who was the public in the Tilted Arc controversy?' Without doubt, the public extended beyond the changing workforce at Federal Plaza to include visitors to the building, and also other workers and residents in the immediate area surrounding Foley Square. Historian Casey Blake suggested a three-way power struggle among "artists and art administrators . . . conservative judges, officials, and commentators . . . and (those who) insisted that the public be given more control over public affairs." Blake noticed that "the two elite discourses that dominated the Tilted Arc controversy rarely recognised the existence of a popular aesthetic that was as hostile to the official iconography of the Federal Plaza as it was to Tilted Arc."

During the 1980's, work and life in lower Manhattan became increasingly stressful for many people, while the Wall Street fortunes were taking a dynamic increase and the real estate business was at its peak, the homeless were becoming more noticeable as part of daily life around New York, and in particular the Federal Plaza. Workers in the Federal Plaza shared a degree of frustration even before Serra's sculpture was introduced, and it is possible it acted as a hub for people to diffuse their anger towards. Michael Sorkin, architecture critic for the Village Voice observed that Tilted Arc was taking the rap for both the building and plaza surrounding it. This in turn referred to the conscious ability for art to initiate an oblivious transference for blame. Importantly, one must consider their own attitudes towards art and visual culture, which have been formed by personal experience and education, before criticising mature art as an excuse for being antagonistic. To this day, few people have realised the work of Serra is not only focused on visual impact, but is dependant on a strong mathematical basis during construction. His huge steel structures rely upon gravity alone in order to support it- no welds, bolts or rivets. This concept alone is reason enough for people to appreciate the work Serra creates, if they do not admire it through beauty. Disappointingly, most public opinion towards art is negligent and Serra himself discovered this when the CBS evening news had enlisted his assistance in preparing a segment on Tilted Arc. He explains,

"I should have known that television delivers people, and that all public opinion is manipulated opinion. The pragmatics of television does not admit rejoinders or resistance. There is no equal time."

Obviously most public opinion is influenced by what is shown on television so it is fair to suggest that a percentage of the judgements made against Tilted Arc may not have even been personal attitudes about the piece, and instead were a representation of people following immature trend. Overall this led to the arguments for removal of the sculpture, and ballots were distributed at the Federal Plaza, offering employees the vote for or against removal. There were many points made to support the idea of removal; ranging from 'problems' with rust, to the argument that people were not asked about the piece in the first place.

The first argument was that it ruined the Plaza. For ten years the Federal Plaza remained the same and people became used to things the way they were, this is not to suggest however that change will always equal negativity. Change is naturally disturbing and consideration by the artist should be made to assess the type of people interacting with the proposed piece, in order to understand the various responses which could be created as a result. As mentioned previously, rust was also one of the arguments made in favour of Tilted Arc's removal. Although self-rusting Cor-Ten steel became as popular in post-war sculpture as marble and bronze were in earlier times, in an urban setting, deterioration and decay is normally associated with rust. One Public Health Services worker claimed that "New Yorkers have enough rust and decay to look at," however Serra has used the same outer surface on Fulcrum in London's high-class Broadgate area. If rust was as offensive to the visual senses as the New Yorkers claimed, then why were there no complaints in response to Fulcrum? The design of Fulcrum was a chance for Serra to present "art as art" in his opinion and not be subservient to the populist notion of satisfying through decoration. Before the hearing, to decide the fate of the Arc, critics were attacking the sculpture. One of these critics was Grace Glueck, suggesting the piece "may conceivably be the ugliest outdoor work of art in the city". If this was truly a respectable statement then surely the majority of public work Serra has conceived would have been taken down as they all follow a similar concept?

Another 'argument' to remove the sculpture was because there was no money for art at the time. This is a fair point, however surely the public should have disputed this with the GSA, (who indeed commissioned the piece) as opposed to Serra who was merely employed to conceive a sculpture. Issues were addressed arguing that public money should not be spent on art and in the cases when it were, the public should have a say in the choice. Many assumed Serra made a profit on the commission, rather than considering the costs it would have taken to create, build and install the sculpture. If they had looked into the matter, maybe the public would not have been so enraged when the subject of relocation costs arose. If this issue had been discussed the piece could possibly have been saved- granted it was a site-specific piece of art and should have remained in the location the artist intended, but the admirers of minimalist sculpture today would currently be able to respect the piece for its structural and aesthetic qualities.

Although the art-world support for Serra's sculpture appeared to be unanimous there were arguments which opposed the removal of Tilted Arc. There was a passion to defend principles of illegality of removal procedures, time needed for new art to be accepted and violations of the artists government contract. 'Serra's sculpture entered the art world at a time of transition', modernism and its link with abstraction was constantly being confronted throughout the twentieth century, and art was being criticised more harshly in terms of content. Surprisingly, not all critics who disliked the sculpture and argued for it to be removed thought that there was nothing we could learn from it. Arthur Danto describes Tilted Arc as a "sullen blade" and that its presence has divided the art world into "philistines who think it should be removed, and aesthetes, who want it to remain forever". At the time of the hearing (four years after the erection of Tilted Arc) Sculptor Gene Highstein defended the piece stating, "a work of art is never seen clearly at the time of its creation and the judgement of the public upon seeing the work of art for the first time is notoriously wrong".

The most common argument made against Tilted Arc surrounded the subject of its form and appearance. Yet there have been many other pieces that have shadowed the structure of Serra's piece, and have not been recipients to the criticism Serra endured throughout the eighties. One artist in particular who created a series of structures similar to Tilted Arc was Sol LeWitt. One piece in particular which mirrored Serra's work to such a high degree was 'Six Curved Walls, 2004', which has been described by critics as a "ghost of Tilted Arc". Six Curved Walls consists of six-overlapping serpentine walls. Interestingly LeWitt's composition echoed the size and proportions of Tilted Arc (12 by 120ft), proving to be exactly the same height and was also commissioned to be a site-specific piece of art. The only main difference between the two is that Walls has breaks in between to allow for passage.

Possibly one of the reasons, LeWitt has not received the media bullying previously exposed from the Tilted Arc controversy is down to its location. Six Curved Walls is situated at the Syracuse University's Crouse College, which was the university which LeWitt graduated from. Firstly there may be some bias opinions of the work, as he already had a relationship with the institution, but the work was situated in a place where people are being educated about art. Further more; in order to prevent debate towards the piece, the university began a series of public 'art chats' to elucidate the sculpture- explaining the historical significance and artistic virtues of the piece. As mentioned previously, many of the public attempts Serra made to clarify the meaning behind Tilted Arc were distorted into a chance to mock the piece and the artist. Another reason the piece may not have been criticised as much is because LeWitt donated the piece, and created it with self funding. Perhaps those who disliked the piece would have spoken up if they thought their money was part of creating the sculpture.