I recently moderated a panel discussion at the Center for Architecture in New York City, Please Touch: The Programming of Public Art. Panelists were artist Vito Acconci, architect Vishaan Chakrabarti and David van der Leer, the Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute. Because of the divergent professional roles of the panelists, each considered key issues pertaining to the public art field through the lens of their work: how do visitors interact with public sculpture? Are buildings enlivened or compromised when a sculpture fills a plaza? Does the meaning of an outdoor work change from city to city, from country to country? Questions focused on the traditional, figurative public art monument to its transformation through the mid- and late- twentieth century as modernist symbols of civic and corporate status to its future role as interactive artworks that mobilize neighborhoods and urban centers. Acconci remarked that only a small percentage of the works proposed by Acconci Studio are ever realized and views his projects in the realm of architecture rather than sculpture. Chakrabarti, whose recent book, A Country of Cities: A Manifest for Urban America, argues for the societal benefits of urbanization, spoke of new projects and the potential for the integration of public art in contemporary architecture. Van der Leer described contemporary artists who work has had great impact in the public realm as well as his role as organizer of the mobile BMW Guggenheim Lab which traveled to New York, Berlin and Mumbai.
What fascinated me was that three of four slide presentations displayed images of Mark di Suvero’s Joie de Vivre, 1998, a seventy-foot high towering steel public sculpture on view in New York’s Zuccotit Park. That work unwittingly became a focal point of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 when activists and hangers-on used the sculpture as a symbol and platform to mark their cause. Di Suvero’s red industrial-scale object had its most photogenic moment because the public transformed the meaning of an abstract sculpture into a clarion call. Although it is not by any means a monument in the traditional trajectory of the bronze, figurative sculpture of a male statesman, the role of Joie de Vivre is analogous to the academic works that have recently radicalized cultures in public squares: Iraqi citizens and American marines toppled the statue of Iraqi leader and dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square and the ferocious fall of the monument to Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev last December which was widely documented. Reuters reported that seething protesters pulled down that sculpture using ropes and metal bars before assailing it with hammers. The name of the site where this took place: Independence Square.
Unlike the outsize likenesses of Hussein or Lenin which were disappeared through violent, physical gestures symbolizing the shifting tide of politics and regime change, Di Suvero’s sculpture is still standing, an abstract icon which the Occupy movement never brutally vanquished but used for its camera-ready form. The images of sculpture as emblem have captivated print and social media. In continuing the conversation begun at the Center for Architecture, what do readers think is the future of public art? Will political factions rally around non-figurative art to propel urgent action? Have monuments to leaders and statesmen assumed a new role as twenty-first century activism moves from the streets of the 1960s and 1970s activism to the urban square which regularly hosts statues of leaders?