Public Art
Urban Crossroads #83

The Travelers Project, an installation of twelve sculptures that move through Sanridge Bridge, Melbourne. (Courtesy of Nadim Karam and Atelier Hapsitus)

The Travelers Project, an installation of twelve sculptures that move through Sanridge Bridge, Melbourne. (Courtesy of Nadim Karam and Atelier Hapsitus)

One way of categorizing art is according to accessibility. At one extreme are works of art located in private collections and therefore accessible only to a limited few. A good part of the world’s artistic heritage, however, is housed in museums, most of which are open to the public, but one still has to set aside a good chunk of time and make the effort to visit a museum, and very often has to pay a hefty fee to enter.

At the other end of the spectrum is public art. This is art located in public spaces, and is therefore accessible to all. One may regularly drive or walk by it, or specifically visit it as a destination. It may be relatively small in size, as when located in an intimate public space, but very often is overwhelming in scale, and may be seen from considerable distances.

The most conventional examples of public art consist of works of sculpture or fountains located within a public space such as a city square or park. Although this is what comes to the minds of many when thinking of public art, it only presents a fraction of available possibilities as public art encompasses all art forms, ranging from the conventional to the outer limits of the avant-garde. In addition to sculpture, public art therefore may include murals, landscape compositions, street furniture, lighting arrangements for a building or site, expansive fabrics, animated LCD images, or even moving sculptural elements. Of course, public art also may consist of an actual structure such as a building or a bridge. Consider the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Cairo Tower, or the Abdun Bridge in Amman. Some may like those structures, while others may not, but many would agree that at a certain level each of them functions as an example of public art. In fact, the limits for what constitutes public art are very hazy. For some, even a fleeting event with a strong visual component, such as a street parade, would qualify.

A main role of a work of public art is to make a visual statement. The more powerful and original the statement, the more effective is the work in terms of engaging the viewer. Public art also may have a commercial message, usually a subtle one as when a corporation sponsors it. It also may convey political or nationalistic messages and often incorporates national and historic symbols such as a country’s flag.

One important result that public art generally accomplishes - if implemented with even an acceptable level of competence - is to promote a sense of civic pride. It is intended for all and is accessible by all, regardless of socio-economic status, and it brings the various segments of society together in interacting with it. It also shows that care is being given to the urban environment.

Beyond that, good public art does what art is supposed to do: it makes us think, reflect, reminisce, or dream, and it challenges our conceptions of the world around us.

As for examples of public art, a well-known recent large-scale one is “The Gates” project by Paris-based artists Christo and Jean-Claude, which was installed in Central Park in New York City for only about two weeks in early 2005. The project consisted of over 7,500 five-meter-high “gates” made of steel and vinyl with a deep saffron-yellow nylon fabric hanging from each of them. The gates were placed on paths in the park, covering a total path length of 37 kilometers. Some viewed the multi-million dollar installation as an expensive exercise in frivolity, but others welcomed it as a strong visual statement that brought color and visual warmth to the bleak winter landscape, as well as a work that encouraged tourism, and with it, increased economic activity in the city.

Amman only has a very small number of works of public art that go beyond the conventional sculpture in a square or garden and that explore new frontiers for such art. One example is the interlaced metal sculptural arrangement by the Paris-based Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi that extends along the three-storey height of the front façade of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts building. The Abdun Bridge with its Y-shaped piers, its curving route, and the arrangement of its suspension cables also is an example of public art even though for the most part it was not intended to function as such.

Only a few artists in our part of the world have explored or have had the opportunity to explore new frontiers for public art. One who readily comes to mind is the Lebanese artist and architect Nadim Karam. His work may be found in Lebanon, and also in Australia, Japan, the Czech Republic, and England. His works include the yet-uncompleted foot bridge crossing the Beirut Corniche Road. Instead of treating the bridge as a everyday utilitarian structure, he conceived it as a series of intercrossing paths that result in an arrangement alluding to a fisherman’s net – hence the name Net Bridge. In Melbourne, Australia, Karam created the Travelers Project, an installation consisting of twelve sculptures, each reaching a height of 7.5 meters. The sculptures move through the preexisting Sanridge Bridge along a preexisting rail at set times within the day, creating what Karam identifies as an “urban clock.” The bridge had been used by trains that carried immigrants from Melbourne’s port to the city’s main train station for over a century, and the sculptures are intended to provide an allegory to this important memory from the city’s past, a city that has been formed by successive waves of immigration.

There is a considerable and often intense debate taking place in Amman and other cities in the region about issues of urban identity and character. Considering that public art can significantly contribute to defining both, it cannot but be included in such debates. There definitely is much room for new works of public art in our cities. There also is a need to explore new frontiers for such art that go beyond conventional solutions. A work of public art admittedly will not make or break a city, and there always will be spirited debates as to what constitutes public art, let alone good public art, and how much to spend on it. Still, public art can greatly contribute to defining what a given city is and what it represents, as well as creating and strengthening bonds between the city and its residents.

Mohammad al-Asad

August 7, 2008