Heads-up: Why Public Art Matters

Public art has a mixed history, and rarely pleases everyone. So, how do you convince the cynics? Engage them, says Felicity Fenner.

Felicity Fenner, Associate Professor at University of New South Wales, will be reflecting on her recent publication Running the City: Why Public Art Matters and highlighting some of her favourite public artworks at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival in May.

“Taking people on a journey and sometimes literally bringing them in as participants, is a way of opening up city spaces that haven’t been available before,” says Fenner. We are all bored of a sculpture on a lawn, but between New York’s High Line and street art interventions by artists such as Reko Rennie, there are far more dynamic and exciting urban art practices.

Take Tracey Emin’s work for Sydney’s city centre ‘The Distance of Your Heart’, 2014 - it leads viewers on a journey to see life-size birds on the window sills of buildings. Fenner describes the viewer’s intrigue - “people are going to want to look for them and wonder is that really is a bird or is it a Tracey Emin bronze?” She continues: “People will be thinking about birds in the city and why are there no birds in the city”. This work complements Michael Thomas Hill’s sound piece ‘Forgotten Songs’, 2012, in Angel Place, Sydney, which also draws attention to the disappearance of ecosystems as a result of urbanism. Through art, we can better understand the changing nature of our cities.

Architects are often tasked with generating new ideas for how to enrich our experience of the city, but there is much dynamism to be gained by collaborating with artists. “In recent years what we’re seeing is artists brought into architectural projects much earlier, when it is still on the drafting board,” says Fenner. “It’s not always as early as it should be, but certainly at a point where they have an opportunity to have a presence in the overall design.” Indeed, liberating people from the strict titles of artist/architect and collaborating across disciplines creates some of the best public art.

London-based collective Assemble won the 2015 Turner Prize, the nation’s top art prize, for what was effectively a house renovation called Granby Four Streets 2014. Construction projects don’t need to solely be the province of architects says Fenner, “I just call them artists, because these days you don’t need to pigeon hole yourself – whether are you an artist or an architect or a designer. It’s all artists to me.”

Granby Four Streets’ shows the possibilities of community engagement. Assemble worked with a Liverpool community who lived in and around a street of run-down terrace houses that were earmarked for demolition. Through do-it-yourself renovation workshops and local council negotiations, Assemble and the Community Land Trust renovated the houses to a livable standard. The houses of Granby Four Streets are now sold and leased back to the community at affordable prices, enabling the community to take back control of the area.

By engaging communities in public art, the artwork and its surroundings are enhanced. People contribute their own readings to the work and pay more attention. As Felicity says, “Place-making is not so much about a big tall sculpture where people can literally meet. It’s more about people coming together to engage in some sort of activity or to participate in art”. If architects, artists and community members all contribute to a place, its complexity only increases and this is a beautiful process.

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