Strictly speaking, no art is “private”. But in the case of public art, the discipline is entirely people-specific. Public art’s relationship with its environment and interaction with its audience is imperative to its success or failure. Its art-making (cast, carved, built, assembled or painted) its location (how it relates to the history of the site, the community and the city) and its impact (does it make the public interact with the art) determine its aesthetic and social value.
Public art scores when done right. However, doing it right is difficult and subjective. Love hate sentiments abound and few pieces appeal to all and sundry. People will see what they want in the art. Religious, cultural and social norms have a divisive bearing on public judgments; often what is permissible in liberal cultures is contradictory in conservative societies. Today, there is also the challenge of defining what we are actually evaluating. The term “public art” once referred to monuments and sculptures celebrating religious or political might. It evolved during the mid-20th century to include art meant to speak for the “people” or advance social and political movements. In Karachi, the Do Talwar and Teen Talwar monuments, Allah Wali Chowrangi, Mukka Chowk etc. answer to this category. Today, public art world over can describe anything from ephemeral, participatory performances to illegal street art to internet-based projects. The intended results of various types of public art and our capacity to measure them are very different.
Humour in public art is often a crowd-puller as it induces amusement and enjoyment. In Vancouver, ‘A-maze-ing Laughter’ by artist Yue Minjun in a small pocket park (Morton Park) next to English Bay beach seems to always have people young and old wandering around the fourteen (twice life-size), bronze cherub-like, laughing figures. The park is full of laughter and smiles, something urban spaces need more of. American artist Claes Oldenburg is noted for the fun element in his art. His most famous artwork ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’ on view at the Walker Art Centre and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, using aluminum, stainless steel and paint, is a curved spoon with a bright red cherry on top, placed above the Garden’s artificially-shaped pond. His wife, Coosje Van Bruggen, contributed the cherry as a playful reference to the Garden’s formal geometry.
Public art with an attractive or striking presence elicits instant viewership, but there are many examples (such as Mona Lisa) of intentional damage to such art. A delightful piece of site-specific sculpture, ‘Les Tulipes de Shangri-La’ by Yayoi Kusama in the French city of Lille features the Shangri-La tulips some eight metres high, created in her traditional psychedelic, dot-involving style as part of her Flower Power exhibition. The work depicts tulips as the symbols of north-western Europe and references Tibetan Shangri-la as a symbol of earthly paradise. Unfortunately, the sculpture was vandalised on numerous occasions and in 2011 it underwent renovation.
Public art seeks to enrich a community by providing a unique encounter with art in public space. In Karachi, the recent trend of reimaging vandalised walls peppered with offensive graffiti is commendable but the projects confusing array of cultural markers like truck art, city scenes, landscapes, celebrity portraiture and primitive decorative patterns painted in loud garish hues in close proximity to each other, is just not easy on the eyes. However, Gul Riaz Khan’s Urdu alphabet art crafted on the walls of Rustam Jee Bagh on Saint Patrick Street of Saddar is among the few cohesive wall painting series that invite extended engagement. Using each alphabet to detail a cultural landmark or institution of Karachi he creates an open air picture dictionary. The letter ‘noon’ centres on the image and history of Nishat Cinema, ‘aein’ describes Abdullah Shah Ghazi, similarly illustrative texts of other venues such as Radio Pakistan Building, Empress Market, Metropole, etc. attract, entertain and inform and educate interested viewers, particularly students of the two schools and colleges in the vicinity.
Public art is an important civic need in developed countries because it invigorates public spaces and seeks to create and inspire relationships and communication. Cities gain cultural, social, and economic value through public art. In Pakistan, public art can have a meaningful presence in the impoverished gallis, mohallas, and bastis of its provinces, but there is no state funding for art. Here art is considered elitist and mainly practised in upscale urban centres. For any major art enterprise to thrive the artist community has to solicit the support of donor agencies or private sponsorship.
Published in Dawn: https://www.dawn.com/news/1378551