6th Swiss Scultpure Exhibition Biel
Art in the Public Realm
By "art in the public realm", we mean any kind of fine arts – sculpture, painting, relief, as well
as "environment" and outdoor design. The most important criterion for this type of art remains its public accessibility.
What is the difference between art in the public realm and works of art exhibited in a museum? The difference lies in the perception of this art; hence, it also concerns the viewer. It is a question of contact. The art-lover deliberately visits a museum to concentrate on works of art presented in a purpose-designed setting. The situation is very different in the public realm where the work of art becomes part of what may be a complex setting, one object among many to be sensed and vaguely perceived rather than seen and studied with deliberation. Let us consider an oft-observed occurrence which may illustrate this behaviour: if a work of art is placed and unveiled in the public realm, attention focuses on the new object which shines in its "moment of glory". But how long before people have become used to such a work of art, until they no longer notice it, until they forget it is even there? This tendency to become accustomed and to forget is accelerated if the work in question is located in an inadequate, hostile setting, in spaces and architectural structures for which it was not created. We must ask ourselves whether works of art might not be placed in such a way that they retain their impact, remaining active and effective contributions to our oft-mentioned quality of life. This is the kind of objective that art in the public realm should be associated with; only then would it find its actual meaning. And then it would also be able to penetrate into public consciousness, into people's everyday lives. Also, rather than being considered foreign bodies, rather than being taken for granted and forgotten, such works of art would acquire the function of something natural, self-evident, of something pleasant and beautiful that people would not want to miss.
In earlier times, works of art and sculptures had to play specific roles, both in architecture and in the built environment. The acceptance of such roles and our awareness of them has been lost. We must now step away from the notion of individual works of art which can be used, more or less accidentally, to "decorate" a building. Any artistic contribution should be an integral part of the architectural process so that it may produce a specific "atmosphere" in conjunction with the architecture. We need the artist to render the "civilised" world in which we live more inhabitable.
The artist's skills, his sense and understanding of form and colour, should be acknowledged and made to serve the public so that the artist would be part of the team of architects, engineers and other specialists. His function would be not only that of an expert for visual elements, but also that of a fermenting agent, of a supplier of ideas, of an impartial, free sparring partner. His methods mean that the artist usually has quite a different relationship and association with the materials, and the expressive potentials of form and colour, than the architect. His approach to problems is different from the architect's as well, as he is unencumbered by administration and organisation, or by the need for precise draughtsmanship (compass and T-square).
In order for the artist to be able to contribute his new perspectives on the design of the built environment, he needs a positive working atmosphere. The brief should be generous; those involved should be willing to benefit from their cooperation. It would be useful to invite an artist's design for a large, contiguous space; he would deal with floor coverings, planting, stairs, seating, soil movement, lighting, the layout of roads and footpaths, the design of public areas, etc. His activities would fall into the category of exterior design and landscaping; it would be that part of the budget which would provide the funds for such work.
The architectural freedom enjoyed by most artists can be a source of inspiration; it can lead to new, original solutions. But it can also create communication problems as it may disrupt the tacit understanding among a team of construction specialists. In such a team, the artist is the unknown factor. One would have to listen to his ideas, suggestions and criticism, and would have to try to benefit from them. What may be expected from most graphic or other designers, i.e. that they should more or less conform with the system, cannot necessarily be expected from a sculptor or a painter.
The construction team willing to welcome an artist in their midst would have to be prepared to grant him their fullest confidence; they would have to accept him as an equal partner. The work schedule would have to allow for stressful situations, for all manner of complications, for more time, The architect would have to be able to accept the fact that the artist would interfere in his work, demanding alterations. Likewise, the artist would have to be willing to trust the construction team, to accept them as equal partners, and to embrace stressful situations, an intense workload and all kinds of complications. Moreover, he would have to be able to accept that some of his ideas might not be realised for structural, functional, financial reasons, and that work on the project and, later, on site, would not be geared to his work rhythm alone.
Despite a maximum of mutual trust, the construction team and the artist will have different perspectives and points of view. Experience has shown that such projects may benefit from the services of an artistic consultant who knows the physical and psychological issues involved from both perspectives. His experience enables him to suggest to the architect various modes of presenting the brief and of selecting the artist. The consultant organises the cooperation of the various parties involved, and assures a continuously positive work atmosphere.
Plenty of time must be allowed at the planning stage. As for the budget, exterior design ideas should already be sketched out so that, later on, not too much funding earmarked for artistic design will have to be siphoned off for actual landscaping work. The early identification of sites for heavy objects may help avoid the late addition of extra foundations and alterations, which can save considerable sums.
Finally, I would like to mention the two examples of "art in the public realm" that have been or are being realised in Biel, which form an important part of the 6th Swiss Sculpture Exhibition.
© Translation from German, July 2008: Margret Powell-Joss