Public art: A microscope trained on our society

Sophie the maid, artist Mary Sibande’s creation, looks down at the Jo’burg CBD from various billboards, some of which completely cover the buildings they are mounted on. The people go about their daily business below, many unaware that they are surrounded by the country’s biggest art exhibition.

The project, which has been ongoing since, is the first large-scale element of the Jo’burg Art City initiative, that aims to break down barriers between “elitist” art and the audience at large by placing artworks in shared public space.

Sibande’s images, that come from an exhibition of life-size sculptures called Long Live the Dead Queen, are the first to get such large-scale treatment.

But why do this at all? It is an expensive undertaking, and, when the M&G went on to the streets of Jo’burg to get public opinion, many were not aware that the billboards were art at all. More often than not this is the case with public art, where artworks appear without explanation.

For Sibande, the anonymity of the images is important, as it highlights the character of the shared space in which they are housed.

“I like the fact that there are no names on the billboards; not even my name,” says Sibande. “A lot of people are going to ask: ‘What is this? Why is this in the city? Who is that woman, and why is she wearing blue?’ And part of the experience is that no one is going to answer those questions. In the city no one will talk to you.”

Many would argue that the point of putting art in public space is to make the viewer aware of the environment in which the work has been placed, or a particular aspect of that space.

German artist Christo, for example, in wrapping buildings in fabric, highlighted their structure, while Sibande’s billboards highlight a city skyline that has been “claimed” by garish advertising campaigns, so much so that people do not notice the artworks, or simply assume they are just another advert.

In South Africa, however, the question of “ownership” of public space, and who is entitled to use it and how — another question commonly raised by public art — is pertinent, given a history where “public” space was not open to everyone equally. Public art, then, could remind a young democracy that public space should, ideally, be “owned” by all who use it.

‘Public space is up for debate’
Lesley Perkes, CEO of AAW! Art Project Managment, the company tasked with putting up the billboards, as well as organising many other projects as part of Jo’burg Art City, agrees.

“For one thing public space is up for debate. Public libraries have a lot of public space inside them, as do museums and places like that. But, often, because of fascist architecture and separateness, even contemporary places like that in South Africa [and I’m sure elsewhere too], where everyone can go freely, are not freely frequented by everyone, because they don’t know they’re allowed to go in, or the door is on the back side of the building whose walls on the front side are high and imposing”.

In Cape Town each year, Infecting the City (ITC) puts performance-based art on the streets of Cape Town. Curator Brett Bailey thinks that letting the public see the possibilities for how space can be used is important, and it is important for artists to realise, away from traditional galleries, who their audience in this new context is.

“In a society with as many complex issues as ours has, if one is taking command of the communal spaces of the city, it is not enough merely to provide entertainment for the public. There is a moral imperative to tackle the pressing issues of our day, and to ask artists to apply themselves to these.”

The festival’s theme each year is chosen to highlight the “meaningful interaction” between art and audience.

Magnifying tensions
“The sense of purpose that many artists acquire from this kind of work enhances our sense of the value of both art and the artist in society. It gives the empowering feeling that we are contributing to the kind of world we want to live in, and that our voice matters.”

In many ways, public art provides a microscope, magnifying tensions between public and private, state and individual, as well as allowing any conflicts to play themselves out in the open, as opposed to galleries where the issues at hand are only known to an elite few.

This was recently seen in Durban, where artist Andries Botha’s elephant sculptures, commissioned to be placed in a public area near the CBD, caused a storm of controversy when an ANC city councilor complained that they resembled the logo of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party.

The city’s about-turn, instructing that work be halted, and the unfinished works be dismantled, drew sharp criticism from art practitioners, as well as the public.

‘It’s very entertaining as long as you’re not Andries Botha’
Perkes suggests that the issue highlighted some of the many problems with “those in power” when it comes to the arts in South Africa.

“It just goes to show how much power is in the hands of people who would be best served by knowing their own weaknesses and getting help. Never mind therapy. It’s also sad and funny and it is important because it is about precedent and freedom of expression. Andries’s famous elephants are commissions all over the world and their meaning is clearly about the plight of elephants and their fragility … but, as with the ex-minister of arts and culture walking out of Zanele Muholi’s exhibition last year, this is not the first time that people in positions of power make rulings over content that they should have no power over at all.

“The issues that their actions highlight all speak to the place the arts has the South African table, the priority, the understanding of it … the who-is-in-charge. It is a missed opportunity. It is a crime. It’s very entertaining as long as you’re not Andries Botha or an artist who makes something yellow when the colour of the day is red. You can’t do right. It’s very scary. It makes you wonder whether one of these days you might have to go and stand in a queue because you are on a list. But it does make working in the arts now in South Africa really interesting.”

Bailey is slightly more optimistic, but agrees that there is a power struggle between the arts, public opinion, and those in charge.

“As far as I know, the saga around Andries’ elephant piece is rare. His poor elephants wondered unwittingly into a political mine field.

“Some years ago Beezy Bailey’s transformation of the statue of General Louis Botha into a Xhosa umkhwetha [initiate] outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town raised a good deal of reaction. And when ITC leaked that local sangomas were proposing to slaughter an ox in Cape Town’s Thibault Square to open this year’s Festival, we faced a barrage of public outrage [and support],” says Bailey.

“Sadly, few artists really raise their voices against the status quo these days or challenge cultural or political boundaries, and there is not much controversy. If I were Andries Botha I would summon press, TV cameras, VIPs and supporters and publicly dynamite the elephant sculptures in an event titled: “Cull-ture: an artistic collaboration with the ANC”.

The issue also raised many questions about funding. Many were horrified when it revealed that the sculptures cost well over R1,5-million, and it would cost more to destroy them. Who pays for public art, and how can it be justified when there are seemingly so many other issues to deal with?

Bailey agrees that winning people over on this point is difficult. Funding comes from national funds such as the lottery (from which getting funding is “a lottery in itself’) and the private sector.

“Why are the arts in general important when there are so many pressing matters in need of money? Education? Healthcare? Housing? Employment? Sanitation? We all know that this is a difficult sell.

“But we also know that the arts give us hope, joy, beauty, stimulation … They can express ideas, emotions and beliefs that we have no other way of articulating or understanding. We have valued creative expression since we gathered in caves tens of thousands of years ago. We are doomed to art,” says Bailey.

“Public art exists for everybody. In a society as divided and stratified as ours is, such phenomena are vital.”

Perkes agrees, and thinks that it is important that decision makers see public art as an investment, one that will reap returns, rather than another funding project.

“If you have the budget to do a great thing within a space that is neglected you can really work with the arts to engage communities in so many ways.

“Sometimes the development of a permanent work will inspire a community to clean up or the municipality to upgrade or the president to come and unveil [which inspires the government to clean up quickly before gets there …] Seriously though, when you work in public space you do provoke public opinion, people hate and love the work, they always have something to say.

“There are so many examples of how artists have inspired change. Diego Riviera’s work in Mexico set off a lot of community re-creation of lives in visible ways that meant people used their own homes as canvases.”

Ultimately, there is a value to public artwork that cannot be calculated in rands and cents. Bringing communities together through a sense of shared excitement, outrage, and conversation where their responses do not agree, allowing and encouraging people to have an opinion about their environment, public art, it could be argued, is invaluable.

Perkes sees this as the real aim of bringing art from the galleries. “The people who don’t care, the people who take the Top Star drive-in away without asking us, the people who use our city’s skyline as a canvas for ugly and unimaginative branding eyesores have to be countered. There has to be an alternative to the great fascist men-on-horses monuments, there have to be other references so that people get what they deserve”.

Bailey agrees. “Art in public spaces activates and energises those spaces, and stimulates people. It brings about engagement with the world around us. It edifies beauty and values and creativity and ideas within a society and thereby fosters civic pride: ‘Look!’ we can say, ‘We are a community that esteems these qualities'”.

Click here to see the M&G’s ongoing report on public art in SA.

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Lisa Van Wyk
Lisa van Wyk is the arts editor, which somehow justifies her looking at pretty pictures all day, reading cool art and culture blogs and having the messiest desk in the office. She likes people who share her passion for art, music, food, wine, travel and all things Turkish. She can't ride a bike, but she can read ancient languages and totally understands the offside rule.

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