Exploring art in urban environment


Historical Context

In the late eighteenth century, the establishment of the museum revolutionised the notion that art had to be exclusive. Paintings and sculptures, objects previously housed in private collections and viewed by a typically bourgeois audience, were propelled into the wider public arena. Although originating as national institutions, as popularity for this new cultural attraction grew, further art museums were required on a regional and local basis and over the centuries this trend culminated in the formation of the contemporary art gallery.

The technological revolution of the 1960's, then, brought with it an increase in available leisure time for the general public, spurring a continued and unprecedented growth in the rate at which art galleries were built. Alongside the introduction of modern media techniques, this combination once again succeeded in bringing art to an increasingly large and diverse audience.

This progression, however, brought about a fundamental change in the actual production, format and display of the art pieces themselves. Artists and curators alike, were required to respond to the changing perceptions of a broader, multi-cultural and modern day audience. To retain an appeal, more experimental forms of art and methods of display were introduced. Art was no longer restricted to being hung on a wall, mounted on a plinth or designed to suit a neutral backdrop. The role of the spectator no longer had to be purely passive. Over the past fifty years, the practice of art and its reliance on the modern gallery setting, that of the conventional white cube, which 'seeks to transcend specificity of time and location' (Ault, J., 2003, in Dernie, 2006, p.9) has been confronted.

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One outcome is that we have witnessed emerging practices of art that extend past the architectural confines of the traditional gallery space and into the external urban fabric.

Public art in the urban context, in its broadest definition, is not new in concept. 'As a work of art or design that is created by an artist specifically to be sited in a public space,' (The Newport News Public Art Foundation) monuments, memorials and architectural ornamentation are all valid examples. It was again in the 1960's, however, that public art became a discipline in its own right, forming new sub-genres including environmental, land, site-specific, community-based and street art. By testing ideas of display through actively engaging the public in a more natural environment, art has formed a much greater part in everyday life.

That is not to say, that public art need be mutually exclusive of the contemporary art gallery. Historically 'art forms more closely linked to areas of everyday life ... have been marginalized by the art establishments as lacking 'aesthetic quality.' (Gastil, 1997, p.85) With its gradual acceptance as a compelling art form, however, there are now many examples where an exhibition of public art, has been divided between both the urban environment and the interior gallery setting. In some cases, the works of art in the urban context, are physically linked to a gallery or merely act as an extension to the main internal exhibition. In other examples, the gallery takes a lesser role, providing a framework of background knowledge, acting as an interpretive voice or a financial benefactor for a display primarily located elsewhere. The internal and external events may run in parallel, or the gallery exhibition may precede or follow the external display by a few days, weeks or even years.

Public Art in the 21st Century

In the first decade of the 21st century, there is a greater demand for art in the urban context, but the popularity and proliferation of this public art, has in turn, led to the danger of it becoming generic/gentrified and having a lesser impact. Now no longer a novel concept, artists in their desire to attract an audience, once again have to strive much harder. In the urban environment, unlike the contained gallery setting, there is not always an expectant observer, here there is a much larger audience that simply happens upon the scene/location and they need to be engaged if the work is to be received successfully.

'Works of contemporary art in public spaces are encountered by diverse publics who have, to a large extent, no contact with art in galleries, though they may be adept at reading the codes of mass culture.' (Gastil, 1997, p.14)

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More problematically, art in general, also needs to compete with a vigorous leisure industry and an overly cinematic modern world. The built environment has become increasingly globalised and homogenous. As 'a society already bombarded with spectacular imagery and simulated environments' (Dernie, 2006, p.14) through the daily onslaught of visual stimulation, (advertisements, graphics and digital media) we also require added stimulation of our other senses, to engage with our surroundings and create a rich, memorable experience.

Within the contemporary art gallery it is apparent 'what is now fundamental to contemporary exhibition design is the creation of an 'experience' that is engaging, multi-sensorial and rewarding.' (ibid., p.13) This 'experience' relies on a mixture of digital technology, graphical design, sound, performance and virtual reality, to build up the blank canvas of the internal space and create an immersive environment.

In contrast, back within the external context, this diverse layering of attributes is a pre-defined condition. The built environment provides the experience, the context, sights, sounds, and smells that are only ever fabricated within the purpose built gallery. Naturally occurring phenomena, the layering of human activity and habitation, social, economic and political factors, environmental factors, historical and cultural backgrounds, all combine organically to form a stimulating environment. It is interesting therefore that, often, it is the 'everyday' environment that is overlooked.

"Many people appear so oblivious to their surroundings, or so insulated from the incursions of modern life, that they really do need someone to stand in front of

them, signaling wildly, before they raise their eyes and look up." (Searle, 2007)

In the current climate, it is evident that for public art to succeed in such a hostile environment, it needs to have either an impact or a resonance, to make a lasting impression.

Exploration through Example

To look at how some artists have tackled this idea, this paper focuses on three specific projects of external public art, that not only note-worthy for their innovative approach, have also have risen to the challenges of a modern society, and are 'projects that deliberately provoke exploration of public spaces ... eliciting fresh thinking about familiar sites and contexts.' (Gastil, 2004, p.99) These are projects that due either to their scale, spontaneity or purpose, could not have occurred within the confines of an art gallery. It is important to note, however, each case study did have a direct link with the conventional gallery setting, showing an interesting interdependence. This relationship can be seen to differ between the examples, dependent on the requirements of the specific project.

In examining the three case studies, I intend to explore more specifically the differing methods employed by the artists to engage the viewer; the context of urban art and how it affects its purpose, meaning, and value, and whether the relationship these projects had with conventional art gallery, strengthened the work itself.


The first project, Event Horizon, was a large-scale sculpture project by Antony Gormley, centered around the Hayward Gallery on the south bank of the Thames in 2007. As one of London's most ambitious public art commissions, 31 life size replicas of the artist's naked body were scattered within a two kilometer proximity of this central London site.

4 of these 31 statues were made from cast iron and located at street level. By temporarily placing them in the direct pathway of the public, 'tangibly interrupting the course of daily life,' (www.antonygormley.com, 2009), the artist orchestrated an engagement through a series of confrontations. The unsuspecting passer-by was challenged to make a decision. Whether tourist, resident or daily commuter, the passer-by was forced to choose either to walk by head down, to pause to take in the sight, or to stop and reach out to touch this alien figure.

The remaining 27 figures, were alternatively placed overhead, on the rooftops of prominent buildings. The unexpected sighting of a human silhouette inhabiting the skyline, evoked intrigue and astonishment (and in some more controversial instances, a phone call to the emergency services). In either encounter, the installation achieved its preliminary goal in forming an initial dialogue between itself and the passer-by.

Despite being extended over this two kilometer site, the considered placement of the statues, ensured that more than one would always be apparent in the peripheral vision of the spectator, widening the scale of the work. Whilst some were clearly visible and others a mere speck on the horizon, there became an ambiguity to how many more of these figures there were placed around the city.

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"The work connects the palpable, perceptual and conceptual, and implicates the viewer in a field condition." (www.antonygormley.com, 2009)

Through an implied interrelationship between the figures and their various locations, the existing built environment became the larger stage on which the display was set.

The spectator was distanced from the works on the horizon, but the implication was that they themselves, by standing within this stage, could also be an additional figure in the landscape.

At street level, the contrasting proximity of the statues further increased this active participation of the spectator / passer-by, by permitting closer examination. The tactile quality and scale of the figures, their material response to environmental factors such as the appearance of rust and the shadows cast from them by the sun, could all be observed and assessed first hand, making the project more memorable.

By integrating this temporary installation into the familiar urban landscape, Gormley does not only try to encourage the spectator to look at the individual statues, but to look afresh at their surroundings. In this case the eye is drawn to aspects of the skyline that are frequently overlooked and spectators are encouraged to consider their relationship as individuals to the city and other inhabitants.

'Event Horizon gives one a terrific sense of the city's scale, of the relative size of the human in relation to the architecture, of the distances and proximities of the city's jumbled elevations.' (Searle, 2007)

Event Horizon ran in parallel with an exhibition of Gormley's earlier sculptures, prints, drawings and photographs, located within the Hayward Gallery itself. These works were seminal in their own right, but the curiosity developed by placing the figures within the urban context, encouraged a far larger number of visitors to the exhibition.

Each of the 31 external statues had been rotated to face the external viewing balcony of the Hayward making this the focal point of attraction. Visitors flooded into the gallery to this observation deck, to stand and look back out at the city. Deliberately no figures were placed on the balcony itself, in a 'reversal of the normal relationship between viewer and art object,' (Gormley in Vidler, 2007, p.47) those observing from the gallery, were encouraged to watch the array of interactions with the art in the street.

Once in the gallery setting, visitors could then observe similar statues within a different context. The gallery provided an alternative insight to the work, and ultimately this relationship further enhanced the overall experience.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The highly publicised installation Wrapped Reichstag, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude provides the second case study. In 1995 The Reichstag in Berlin, a symbol of democracy for Germany, was wrapped for 14 days in 100,000 square meters of thick woven polypropylene fabric. A steel framework was temporarily installed to the facades and roof of the building, altering the original proportions and allowing the fabric to cascade to the ground. First conceived in 1971, it took 24 years of public forums, parliamentary debates, press conferences and design trials, before approval for the project was granted and as such the considerable activity that preceded the wrapping, became as much a part of the work as the actual installation.

As a building of huge historical significance, the image of The Reichstag was a familiar one and therefore the initial encounter of the viewer to the installation tended to be one of awe. Both spectacular in scale and drama, this display showcased how projects could be strengthened by their interaction with the outside world. The draped fabric took on a dynamic quality by being free to ripple in the wind, whilst the aluminum coating reflected the sun during the day and became muted in the evening. Even the sheer amount of people who went to see the transformation, provided a spectacle in itself.

By being deliberately temporary, the work was enhanced in intensity and value. Described as a 'revelation through concealment', (Bourdon, 1971) by transforming the appearance it drew on people's memory to remember the original proportions, the materiality and the solidarity of the building hidden beneath. When the installation was then dismantled and the site returned to its original state, this too provoked a further re-evaluation that continued long after the project was dismantled.

'In 1995, it was seen by five million people and has retained its power through documentation and memory long after it was removed.' (Gastil, 1997, p.102)

In this instance the relationship of the gallery was based around two parts. Prior to the two-week installation, the role of the galley was one of promotion. Due to the sheer logistics of wrapping such a significant icon of German history, drawings, collages and scale models were, over a period of years, displayed within a multitude of galleries. Beginning at the Annely Juda Gallery in London and then moving to galleries in Cologne and finally Berlin, the artists sought an international awareness of the project, to raise both the public support and the finances required to undertake the task.

After the event, photographs taken during the installation, were then exhibited alongside the original drawings as a record of the event. The wrapping of The Reichstag also raised several political and historical issues, which were again documented within these further exhibitions, to expand the background knowledge of the visitor.

The spectacle was executed within the urban environment, but for those who perhaps could not attend, those that had heard about the event only afterwards through the media, or those that simply wanted to learn more, the contemporary art gallery provided this forum and subsequently extended the life of the installation.


The third example is far subtler in nature. Produced by artist Slinkachu in 2006, a series of one-inch mini-installations were created for, and placed in, the streets of London. In modifying small, shop bought plastic figurines and placing them within a real urban context, Slinkachu curated everyday human scenarios, in miniature, whether it be reading the newspaper, shopping, sight-seeing or engaged in more criminal activities.

Unlike the two previous examples, the art works of Slinkachu, did not rely on being at odds with their urban surroundings. Left to be discovered by passers-by, the orchestrated scenes invited exploration through curiosity and intrigue.

Like Gormley's statues, these miniature figures were designed to engage the audience emotively through personal resonance.

"Even when you know they are just hand-painted figurines, you can't help but feel that their plights convey something of our own fears about being lost and vulnerable." (The Times, 2006)

In the urban context, by the very nature of the size of the installation, even the trained eye could pass over the work unnoticed and the pieces were only likely to attract the attention of a very small number of people. To ensure the engagement of a wider audience, Slinkachu captured these interventions through photographic images that appeared, in tandem, on advertisement boards throughout the city.

For each miniature scene, photographs were taken from distances both far away and up close, yet the advertisement boards showed only one image of the set, deliberately puzzling the passer-by and encouraging a second glance. In the wider scene it was not immediately obvious where the work was, whilst at the macro scale, the figurines appeared to adopt human proportions.

The artist also relied on the traditional gallery space to provide an interpretive voice. Exhibiting at the Cosh Gallery, the two photographs of each installation could be placed adjacent to one another alongside recreated scenes of the original context, revealing the distortion of scale, to the viewer, in a witty manner.

The gallery in this instance provided recognition of the artist and of his installations that outside of the gallery setting, were not necessarily obvious as a pieces of art. If the audience had been unsuccessful in finding the installations in the urban environment or, alternatively once engaged, simply wanted to learn more, the gallery provided a space to summarise the events that occurred externally.

In a reversal of roles, for some the gallery even became the starting point. On noting the separate scenarios and their locations within the city, visitors would often be encouraged to then go back outside and search for the work, which by then however, may have been washed away by rain, discarded as rubbish or rescued as a treasure.


Whilst each individual will observe or experience a situation differently, dependent on their own preconceptions, by engineering encounters, storylines and multi-sensorial experiences, in each case study, the artists have been successful in encouraging an audience to 'raise their eyes and look up' (Searle, 2007) from their everyday lives. As demonstrated, if works of art can evoke an emotive response from the spectator, such as shock, awe, curiosity or empathy, it can contribute to a lasting impression. Also by being temporary in nature 'there is an element of spontaneity to these places and events that is memorable. One doesn't actually expect the experience you arrive at.' (Gastil, 1997, p.18) In the example of Event Horizon, even the most unsuspecting of passers-by, can become active participants in the drama unfolding around them.

It is evident that each case study also became strengthened by the richness of its surrounding location. By being placed alongside attributes identifiable in everyday life, the spectator could draw upon a deeper social and cultural framework, to form their own opinion of the art. In turn, as new interventions within familiar landscapes, these projects heightened the awareness of the spectator and encouraged them, even if only subliminally, to reassess the urban environment around them.

The value of urban art is therefore, not judged solely on its own intrinsic merits as an individual piece or installation, but instead its value is in the dialogue it can generate between itself, the spectator and the surrounding context.

The purpose of this paper is not to suggest that displays in the urban environment are ever likely to replace or take precedence over those in the typical gallery space, but that by being more experimental in nature, they act as a catalyst to test the perceptions of a developing audience.

'For many of us the 'designed' air of the modern art gallery or museum still represents a kind of elitism,' (Dernie, 2006, p.9) Alternatively the unpredictable and unregulated external environment, offers familiarity, an opportunity for spontaneity, and a larger stage on which to exhibit. Urban installations bring works of art to a mass audience; to those who may not be actively seeking it, but might well become engaged by it and find enjoyment from it. They can motivate people to seek further understanding in entering a gallery they would perhaps not visit otherwise.

The contemporary art gallery in linking with these urban installations has adapted and taken on a new supporting role, providing a level of education, a longer lasting memory, financial incentives, recognition and ultimately a voice between the artist and general public.

The advantage of combining these two environments, as indicated in the three case studies, is that this relationship can be of mutual benefit, it can provide added value and impact and prove fruitful in engaging a wider diverse audience, or as in the case of Slinkachu, even lead to a cult following.

Related bibliography


  • Baal-Teshuva, J. (2001), Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Taschen
  • Bourdon, D. (1971), Christo, Harry N. Abrams Publishers, New York
  • Chernow, B. (2000), Christo and Jeanne-Claude A Biography, St Martin's Press, New York
  • Dernie, D. (2006), Exhibition Design, Laurence King, London
  • Gastil, W., Ryan, Z. (2004), Open: New Designs for Public Space, Princeton Architectural Press
  • Holl, S. (2007), Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture (2nd Edition), William K Stout Publishers
  • Lynch, K. (1972), What Time is This Place, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  • Miles, M. (1997), Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures, Routledge
  • O'Doherty, B. (2000), Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, California
  • Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (2nd Edition), John Wiley & Sons
  • Psarra, S. (2009), Architecture and Narrative: The formation of space and cultural meaning, Routledge, Oxford
  • Self, W. (2008), Little People in the City: The street art of Slinkachu, Boxtree, Oxford
  • Vidler, A., Stewart, S. and Mitchell, W. (2007), Anthony Gormley Blind Light, Hayward Gallery Publishing, London
  • Zardini, M. (2005) Sense of the City: An Alternative Approach to Urbanism, Lars Muller Publishers, Toronto

Press Articles:

  • Searle, A., (2007), Antony's Army, The Guardian, May 15th


  • <www.antonygormley.com> (Accessed 04/01/10)
  • The Newport News Public Art Foundation, What is Public Art, Available from:<www.nppaf.org> (Accessed 03/01/10)
  • The Times, (2006), The Blog of the Week, October 28th, Available from: <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/article611643.ece> (Accessed 29/12/09)

Picture Credits:

  1. Photograph by Miller, D. (2005) The White Cube Gallery, Available from:<www.frieze.com/images/shows>
  2. Photograph by Hopper, D. (1967) Fluids by Allan Kaprow, Los Angeles, Available from: <http://www.moca.org/kaprow/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/fluids_hopper.jpg>
  3. Running Fence by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, California, (1972) in Baal-Teshuva, J. (2001), Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Taschen
  4. Photograph by Aschkenas, D. (1985) Tilted Arc by Richard Serra, Available from: <http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/visualarts/images/tiltedarc_big2.jpg>
  5. Famous advertisement boards on Piccadilly Circus, London, (2005) Available from: <http://farm1.static.flickr.com/22/24424335_ff48a4e4d9.jpg>
  6. Interactive Displays, London Underground, (2007) Available from: <http://farm1.static.flickr.com/175/414771632_a851ce4e51.jpg?v=0>
  7. Nikon Interactive Lightbox, Subway Station Seoul, (2009) Available from: <http://www.jacobtyler.com/creative-blog/wp-admin/images/Nikon.png>
  8. Photograph by White, S. (2007) Event Horizon, in Vidler, A., Stewart, S. and Mitchell, W. (2007) Anthony Gormley Blind Light, Hayward Gallery Publishing, London
  9. Event Horizon (2007) Available from:<www.flickr.com>
  10. Photograph by White, S. (2007) Event Horizon, in Vidler, A., Stewart, S. and Mitchell, W. (2007) Anthony Gormley Blind Light, Hayward Gallery Publishing, London
  11. Photograph by Harrison, C. (2007) 'Event Horizon' - By Antony Gormle­­­­y, Waterloo Bridge, London, Available from:<http://www.england-360.co.uk/panos/london/antony-gormley-waterloo-bridge-london.htm>
  12. Wrapped Reichstag (1995) in Baal-Teshuva, J. (2001), Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Taschen
  13. Photograph by Manzanares, R. (2009) Christo and Jeanne-Claude with a model of Wrapped Reichstag, Available from: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/nov/20/jeanne-claude-christo-obituary>
  14. Preliminary Drawings, Wrapped Reichstag in Baal-Teshuva, J. (2001), Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Taschen
  15. Photograph by Hecht, H. (1995) Wrapped Reichstag, Available from: <http://www.heinrichhecht.de/pix/architecture/pic14.jpg>
  16. Photograph by Hecht, H. (1995) Wrapped Reichstag at Night, Available from: <http://www.heinrichhecht.de/pix/architecture/pic14.jpg>
  17. Slinkachu, (2008) Ground Zero Solo Show, Cosh Gallery, London, Available from:<http://slinkachu.com>>
  18. Slinkachu, (2008) Ground Zero Solo Show, Cosh Gallery, London, Available from:<http://slinkachu.com>
  19. Slinkachu, (2007) I Can't Actually Graffiti, Festival Hall, London, Available from:<www.slinkachu.com>
  20. Slinkachu, (2007) I Can't Actually Graffiti, Festival Hall, London, Available from:<www.slinkachu.com>
  21. Slinkachu, (2009) Small Victory, Billingsgate, London, Available from:<http://little-people.blogspot.com>
  22. Slinkachu, (2009) Small Victory, Billingsgate, London, Available from:<http://little-people.blogspot.com>