Even when considered separately from specific geographies, public art is a loaded concept. All too often communities and collectivity are prescribed and “defined” in a large-scale permanent commission, which quickly ages into a relic of something it never quite was.
The regeneration of post-industrial cities in the British Isles has maintained a tradition of shiny modernist structures, each a variant of minimalistic shape and aspirational title. In some ways it can feel like an attempt of illustrating a progression – where materials were once used for manufacturing purposes, they sit, occupying and present in space for the vague higher purpose of art.
In Belfast these public works carry the dual filter of the commercial and socio-political regeneration that follows its current prescript status of Post-Conflict. In the last 10 years works such as Beacon of Hope, Spire of Hope, Rise and Spirit of Belfast have positioned themselves in the city, and all embody vague notions of advancement. Dawning spheres and skyward needles show ambition in scale, if not specifics; visually they draw upon similar work in the other cities of Ireland and Great Britain, in keeping with a reduced aesthetic of a bland future utopia.
The definition of space and society through large-scale public art seems not an attempt to please everyone so much as to offend no one: when based upon concepts like hope and collective spirit, the public – whomever that may be – cannot find fault, particularly in something that elicits little response. Instead there may be frustrations at cost, along with the feeling that, whilst the work may have no individual relevance to them, at least it is present, at least investment is being placed into something, and perhaps it relates to somebody, somewhere.
Whilst the majority of these public sculptures were fabricated in the middle of the last decade, for the most part they are unfortunately not only remnants of an old approach. All too often there is little evidence of advancement in the beliefs of what’s fit for public consumption in Northern Ireland. Last year’s temporary land art commission by the Belfast Festival at Queens, the WISH project, continued to confuse the punch of scale with quality: the face of an anonymous Belfast girl, again apparently hopeful, was marked upon a huge expanse of wasteland using lines of earth, sand and stones. In keeping with more permanent metallic works sited on roundabouts or thoroughfares, WISH was not an experience on the ground. One had to rely on PR images or fly out of the city to see it.
The WISH project has striking visual parallels to the Not A Bug Splat project realized this month in the Khyber Puhtoonkhwa Region of Pakistan. Sited in an area that faces many drone attacks, the work references military slang for those killed at long range, and aims to raise awareness of child casualties with a large-scale photograph of an anonymous young child who was orphaned by drones. This viral image brought worldwide attention to the current situation of this place, and perhaps gave pause to those operating drones in the region by providing the face that long ranges do not register. This project uses the ubiquity and worldwide desensitization of war photography by providing a new medium and a new type of image that is needed and relevant to this time; and in this instance, her anonymity becomes emblematic of the current situation of those living in the region, whilst providing some kind of collective identity in the media. In contrast, within the very different context of the WISH project, the anonymity of the young child seemed more of a cloak of vague sentimentality, awkwardly placed within the PR of aftermath. For its audience of media photographers, it is more of a mask than a face.
In spite of the somewhat reductive nature of the work, the transient nature of WISH made the project fairly unique. The ongoing pressure to reduce art’s reliance on government funding, combined with an emphasis on longevity and legacy to ensure monetary value, often make time-based visual art rare beyond the projects of designated gallery spaces. With Belfast Festival at Queens slashed corporate and European funding in 2014, further departures from the permanence of the council-placed tender application may be once more placed further out of reach – and yet, as scale reduces and tacts must change, can we at least place more trust in an appetite for subtle, nuanced public artwork?
The misalignment between public art and the individual deepens when considered alongside the way in which the majority of artists in Belfast actually work: often adopting a personal scale to some degree, and wary of permanence and art as a definition and full stop. With so little progression in thinking for public work beyond the hazy concept of Hope For The Future, artists working on the ground have instead built upon the platitudes so monumentously presented to explore their deeper implications.
In the debate surrounding the WISH project, artists and writers Daniel Jewebury and Dan Shipsides shaped an argument against generic statements of post-conflict in both the Public Art in Belfast website and the Queen’s festival website. In bringing a discontent to light this at least introduces the possibility of a different sensitivity in new publicly funded commissions.
Until tenders are pursued that adopt a new approach for public art in Belfast, artists can at least interrupt what already exists. Jacqueline Holt’s photo WORLDCLASS (Streetview)] 2013, plays visually with the concepts surrounding the PR language and graphics of public art. Taking the medium in which we most prominently experience the city’s mostly inaccessible public art – ironically, the digital photograph – Holt’s ground-level view of WISH is a tongue-in-cheek question of what’s present, experienced and spoken in this rhetoric.
Tonya McMullan has also worked with a playful response to the officiousness of public art, staging an intervention at The Spirit of Belfast. When the structure was blocked off, undergoing assessment due to its failing self-support, the artist added her own disruption to the piece. With Critical Fail, 2011 McMullan, like Holt, aligns global and digital notions with specific spatial politics. Playing on the popular “fail” meme, the intervention is made to be photographed and circulated online – not unlike the sculpture itself, or indeed, most other pieces of public art, in a city so aware of hypothetical eyes that look in.