Articles

Diving Headfirst into The New Wave of Public Art

Michelle Laflamme-Childs - July 31, 2015

New Mexico is at the forefront of Contemporary Public Art! Read more to find out how...

What do you think of when you hear the words, “public art?” A figurative bronze sculpture of a local hero or historical figure? Perhaps a large, brightly painted, abstract steel sculpture on your local University campus? Maybe even a landscape painting that hangs in the lobby of City Hall behind Plexiglas?

Well, here are some things that might not immediately spring to mind:

A “Dance Bomb” by a contemporary Indigenous dance company1,
A large, temporary mandala constructed in a town center from the bread and seeds of local residents, washed away hours later by a large rainstorm2,
A 50 foot digital dome showing an interactive immersive video project of a ground-breaking temporary installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and a Navajo artist in remote Navajo Country3,
A flock of ceramic birds decorated with words and text of controversial histories or personal stories “landing” in a park or parking lot for a day, then disappearing4.

All of the above are examples of valid forms of public art. The projects in the second list, however, are examples of the exciting sea change we’re seeing in the field, and are a very small sampling of actual, cutting-edge projects that have taken place in New Mexico in the last few years.


Bert Benally’s and Ai Weiwei’s installations for "Pull of the Moon", part of Navajo TIME 2014. Photos by Robert Schwan.
 

Coming from the non-profit arts world, where my focus was on art as a catalyst for social change through work that embraced social justice, environmental responsibility, and cultural freedom, I was worried that moving to a “state sponsored” public art program would require me to let these ideals go. It did not take me long to realize that this was a completely unfounded worry. Bronze sculptures and landscape paintings will always have a place in public art, but they are no longer all that public art is.

Public art administrators, curators, and artists are seeking ways to not simply show the public something, but to engage the public, sometimes even to disrupt the public’s status quo. Work can move away from often staid, intimidating, bureaucratic public buildings and into busy, non-traditional public spaces. Public art can ask questions about stories of place, histories, or communities, rather than simply offer answers.


“Birds in the Park” Christy Hengst, National Mall, Washington DC, Photo by Genevieve Russell


The UK based Curatorial Collective, Situations, has embarked on a year-long series of talks, films, publications, and workshops entitled “Public Art (Now)”designed to explore exactly this movement. Unfortunately, the UK is pretty far away from New Mexico, so I won’t get to participate directly in any of these events. However, they have developed and published a list of what they call the “New Rules of Public Art” that I think sums up the direction we’re going quite nicely--so well in fact, that I have the poster hanging on my office wall as a daily reminder (you can download and hang it up too). Check out the link above for the detailed descriptions, but here are the headlines of the “New Rules:”

1) It doesn’t have to look like public art.

2) It’s not forever.

3) Create space for the unplanned.

4) Don’t make it for a community. Create a community.

5) Withdraw from the cultural arms race.

6) Demand more than fireworks.

7) Don’t embellish, interrupt.

8) Share ownership freely, but authorship wisely.

9) Welcome outsiders.

10) Don’t waste time on definitions.

11) Suspend your disbelief.

12) Get lost.


Photo by Paulo Tavares Photography for Dancing Earth


Wow, right? The best part is that we don’t have to lose traditional public art to make room for this new wave. The public art universe is continually expanding, and can easily encompass and embrace both new and old forms. It’s truly an exciting time to be in the field, and I couldn’t be happier to have found my way to it, especially in such a diverse, culturally rich, and innovative state like New Mexico.

1 Dancing Earth Indigenous Dance Company

2 “Bread Drawing” by Chrissie Orr as part of New Mexico Arts’ TIME project Silver City: Alchemy

3 New Mexico Arts’ NAVAJO TIME: Coyote Canyon--Pull of the Moon

4 Artist Christy Hengst’s Birds in the Park


“sq' bik'ehgo na' adá” means, 'we live in accordance with the stars.' Project by Chrissie Orr in collaboration with Susanna Carlisle, Bruce Hamilton, and Navajo astronomer Robert Johnson. Photo courtesy New Mexico Arts, Art in Public Places Program