Art is an integral part of our public spaces. It serves as much more than beautification or decoration; from commemorative sculpture to political murals, public art is for the people and—more often than not—about the people.
In recent decades, public art has evolved beyond representation, increasingly becoming an agent of public engagement. Two iconic pieces illustrating this evolution are Robert Smithson's 1970 Spiral Jetty in Utah and Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates in Central Park, completed in 2005. Spiral Jetty and The Gates are ephemeral, immense, environmental, and memorable. Both works have helped set the stage for art as an active catalyst in public space, redefining relationships between the viewer, object, and time.
This trend of art as an activator of public space is growing. High-impact, temporary works are more and more common. And these works are ever more connected to the context and community in which they exist—symbolically, physically, and digitally.
Public Space as a Stage
The centerpiece of the Tom Hanafan River's Edge Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is a great lawn. Carved out of a broad riparian forest, the lawn features views to the Missouri River and the Omaha, Nebraska, skyline. And at the park's opening over Memorial Day weekend, visitors who stayed past sunset became both spectators of and participants in another spectacle: a techicolor-scape of light.
Rays, by Seattle-based artist Dan Corson, renders the lawn a stage upon which light plays a shifting role. Sometimes, the light dances, manifested as ribbons that will change in hue with the seasons. Sometimes, it acts like a spotlight, highlighting visitors and casting them as dancers. Other times, a corps de light pirouettes across the field, compelling children to chase it in an impromptu duet.
Rays by Dan Corson, images courtesy of the artist
Dan describes his work as "relationships and choreography between the environment and the viewer/participant." Rays—both visually stimulating and participatory—quite literally evokes the reading of public space as a stage for urban living. Digital and ethereal, it offers a virtually endless and exciting array of engagement tactics.
Public radio and television station WXXI's ongoing project, Paley on Park Avenue: New York City, is more tied to traditional sculpture, but exemplifies how the process of making and installing public art is being reconceived.
Albert Paley, a world-renowned metal sculptor, began his career making jewelry and furniture before moving up in scale, creating prominent pieces of sculpture throughout the world. Made from a variety of metals, his work often defies the rigidity of the material, appearing fluid and wind-swept. Two of his most iconic pieces are Synergy in Philadelphia and the Animals Always archway at the St. Louis Zoo.
Paley on Park Avenue: New York City process photos, courtesy of Paley Studios
Paley's process—which includes paper sketching, cardboard "mockettes," and fabrication in his massive warehouse-like studio in Rochester, New York—is as riveting as the work itself. Paley on Park Avenue: New York City reveals this process through a series of online videos of Paley creating thirteen original pieces to be installed on New York's Park Avenue as part of The Fund for Park Avenue's Temporary Public Art Collection. The process of installation begins June 14.
By utilizing traditional television platforms as well as the web and social media, Paley on Park Avenue: New York City unlocks the artist's studio and ushers in the broader community. Not only is the art public, but the process is as well.
The installation of 25,000 LED lights on San Francisco's Bay Bridge seems like magic. Clinging to the vertical cables of the bridge's structural system like dewdrops, the lights create a never-repeating series of effects and patterns from dusk until dawn.
The Bay Lights by Leo Villareal, image courtesy of Words Pictures Ideas
Conceived by Ben Davis of Words Pictures Ideas and designed by Leo Villareal, the installation illuminates San Francisco's second-most famous bridge on its 75th anniversary. The piece is one of a series of provocations, including a website and a volume of poetry about the bridge. The authors anticipate nearly 50 million people will witness The Bay Lights in action during its two-year installation.
Although there is precedent for this scale of urban light intervention (for instance, the Eiffel Tower) what sets The Bay Lights apart is its means of becoming. Ben Davis's vision was realized by crowdfunding—hundreds of donations, from as little as $10 up to a single anonymous gift of $3 million.
As a nation, we are often underwhelmed by our lack of investment in infrastructure and inability to implement change on a large scale. The Bay Lights illustrates the potential of funding bold ideas in new ways in a digital age.
Rays and the design of River's Edge Park, in particular, demonstrate the richness that emerges from a close collaboration between artist and landscape architect. Part of the original intent of the park was to be a showcase for art; as such, Rays is not an add-on feature, but rather an integral part of the experience of the space.