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Sanctioned to the subversive: art in the public space

Freddie Ribeiro journeys through art in public spaces world over, observing how these are platforms for civic dialogue, forces for social cohesion, stress-busters and change agents.

by Freddie RibeiroPublished on : May 19, 2020

I think of public art as a team sport. The outcome is only possible with the interaction of all the players.
- Janet Echelman

In a meadow at Kew Gardens in London, the visitor is greeted by a rather imposing, 16-metre-high complex web of aluminium tubes, cleverly integrating lighting and enclosing a large usable space. Popularly known as the ‘beehive’, the structure serves to draw attention to the dwindling bee population in UK and is set among wildflowers – their natural habitat. Inside, over a thousand LED lights recreate the hectic atmosphere of a beehive in tandem with the ambient sound of a symphony in C (the key that bees buzz in). 

A popular attraction, the beehive is also a stunning example of adaptive reuse of contemporary public art.

The beehive was originally conceived as an installation serving as the UK Pavilion for the 2015 World Expo in Milan. The design competition was won by the unlikely union of artist Wolfgang Buttress and British Landscape Architect James Millington. In that setting, the approach was through a series of hexagonal planters mimicking the beeswax cells enticing the visitor into the space within. Drawing curious and fascinated crowds, the structure was voted as the best one at that Expo. For most of the people involved, the exhibit had served its purpose. However, Kew Gardens sensed an opportunity and all 170,000 aluminium parts were painstakingly dismantled and reassembled 800 miles away to give the installation a new home, context, function, audience and lease of life.

The award winning ‘Beehive’ installation as the UK Pavilion at the Milan World Expo 2015 | Sanctioned to the subversive: art in the public space | Mark Hadden | STIRworld
The award winning ‘Beehive’ installation as the UK Pavilion at the Milan World Expo 2015 Image Credit: Mark Hadden, BDP

As I stood in admiration of the multi-disciplinary collaboration that must have gone into conceiving, designing, engineering and constructing the form while preserving the flexibility of function, I was reminded of my own faltering attempts to introduce art into our public spaces. An early commission, two decades ago, for a major highway connecting New Delhi with a satellite town, called for a sculptural element at the centre of the largest interchange. A renowned sculptor was commissioned who envisioned an enormous abstract form of a human hand cast in iron. To be perceived from 200 metres away and 360 degrees around, this first-of-its-kind public art offering to the city was meant to be a monumental landmark and a showpiece of the master plan with the landscape design subservient to it. It seemed, however, that the authorities were not ready for such an intervention. The proposal was rejected by the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, for being a “…potential traffic hazard to motorists...”. 

The Hive at its new home at Kew Gardens, London | Sanctioned to the subversive: art in the public space | Mark Hadden | STIRworld
The Hive at its new home at Kew Gardens, London Image Credit: Mark Hadden, BDP

My training as a landscape architect had introduced me to the seminal works of Martha Shwartz on art in the landscape, and thinkers like Charles Jenks where the landscape was art. Why, I wondered, were there such misgivings, suspicion even, about art in our urban spaces? Our planners, policy makers and funding agencies perhaps aren’t entirely aware of the social capital created by art in our consciousness. In a growing economy, benefits are calculated monetarily with very little regard for social impact. Art is equated with privilege and it struggles to find a place in the bill of quantities for a pedestrian plaza, often giving way to revenue-generating hoardings. Public art, by definition, ought to be financed by public funds, or if privately funded, it should rightly dwell in the public domain.

Numerous studies and lived experience have shown that public art can be a platform for civic dialogue. In multi-cultural neighbourhoods, public art can challenge our assumptions and cause a better understanding of historical and cultural backgrounds, eventually becoming a driving force for social cohesion and mutual respect. It is also known to slow down vehicular traffic, reduce stress, engage pedestrians and influence a positive mood. Statues eulogise, installations can provoke contemplation, while murals and sculptures inspire awe.

Determined to include this valuable element in my professional offerings, I was glad to have such an opportunity with one of our projects at the landscape design studio at BDP in 2016. We were asked to ‘beautify’ a set of traffic islands by a client who had ‘adopted’ them. This blank canvas was a rare opportunity to further a cause through art and eventually led to a small landscape design project in the vibrant yet chaotic public realm of Mumbai's suburbs. I like to call it The Flight of the Flamingo as it pays homage to the migratory Lesser Flamingos that nest in the Sewri mudflats close by. The resultant design was a meticulous composition of scaled up, stainless steel models of flamingos in various stages of flight on a bed of mixed ground covers representing the wetlands, thus celebrating the survival instinct of the birds that fly halfway across the world from Siberia. These sculptural flamingos also serve to highlight the importance of the wetlands for its biodiversity, and draw attention to the impending infrastructure projects that pose a threat to their natural habitat. The most pleasing aspect of the project was one that could not have been envisaged – a traffic island had been transformed into a ‘destination’ for the local community, in time even morphing into a selfie point.

The flight of the flamingo, enriching dull traffic islands in suburban Mumbai | Sanctioned to the subversive: art in the public space | STIRworld
‘The flight of the flamingo’, enriching dull traffic islands in suburban Mumbai Image Credit: Deepshikha Jain

A more ‘organic’ form of public art, street art, has mostly been understood as a genre that is accessible and familiar. Curated street art, which has become a phenomenon in Indian cities over the last decade or so, however, comes with a script and a chosen canvas. New Delhi’s first ‘art district’, Lodhi Colony, is helmed by a not-for-profit, St+Art India, as a tribute to the city and to make art more accessible to its inhabitants. The contribution of almost 50 Indian and international artists on the dull monochrome facades of government residential quarters, these murals, ranging from the abstract, tongue-in-cheek to flashy, brighten up a prominent pedestrian-friendly boulevard in south-central Delhi. 

Graffiti, on the other hand, after being traditionally labelled ‘illicit’, has evolved as an offshoot of street art into a powerful tool of political expression. It is precisely this subversive and rebellious nature of graffiti that makes it impossible to disregard. Graffiti’s full time calling is to spew truths that no one else will. Its courage lies in the unscripted nature of its art. If graffiti is not poetic, political or philosophical, it is ‘vandalism’. Equally, if sanctioned by authority, graffiti loses its power and runs the risk of degenerating into propaganda.

More than words – making a point at JNU Campus, New Delhi | Sanctioned to the subversive: art in the public space | STIRworld
More than words – making a point at JNU Campus, New Delhi Image Credit: Surekha Pillai

The full power of this medium can be seen in a recent instance in my own city, Delhi—the murals that students painted almost overnight in late 2019 and early 2020 on the outer walls of the Jamia Millia Islamia University campus as a creative response to a divisive piece of legislature. The stunning and evocative images spoke more effectively than any slogan or rallying war-cry could. 

In effect, practitioners of art in the public realm (and here I include street performers, musicians and muralists as well) make a valuable contribution to communities. They are by nature the most ground-breaking members of our society, activists by calling who have taken upon themselves the onerous yet vital task of holding a mirror up to the society they are an integral part of. Give them the space they deserve, and watch the change!

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