Another public sculpture for Cape Town: Toy art?

Few who enjoy – or even like – the giant sunglasses installed on Sea Point’s promenade, will suggest that this is, well, a significant work of art.

On the other hand, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Western Cape government, about to pay R1-million for an art piece in front of its Cape Town head office, expects its commission to be just that: good art. A work of importance, enduring and admired.

After extensive renovations of the old Brutalist building that straddles Wale and Dorp Streets, which included a podium in the latter, earlier this year, the provincial government announced an open competition. It called for submissions by October 15 to find “an exceptional, permanent artwork” to be placed on that specially-constructed dais.

Two weeks ago premier Helen Zille’s office announced the finalists selected and placed images on the province’s official website.       

To judge from the 16 finalists chosen, that high aim of finding something “exceptional” may not quite be fulfilled. What they may be getting could be little more than adult toy art.

Public art is not easy, when taken seriously, and often problematic. It is also controversial, but because of exactly that, worthy of a sober aesthetic debate.

A few years ago Sue Williams arranged an important symposium about public art in the light of international efforts like the Sculpture Projects Muenster, which takes place every 10 years in Germany and draws plenty of attention. 

Yet, it now seems that many local artists (or designers) are not capable of engaging with the idea of public art on more than a superficial level. Often it is merely a one-liner statement made in public.

For many hoping to see their work permanently placed in the public sphere, the easy route nowadays seems to be an approach of “play-play” – making objects that either resemble toys or invite people to have fun.

If the age of solemn statues, heavy in self-important bronze, has clearly passed its colonial sell-by date, and the time of meticulous modernist environmental statements looks so last century, the challenge for the contemporary constructor of large-scale (or small, for that matter) art in the public eye is heavy.

But surely it is or should also be exciting. Especially in South Africa, with its remarkable cross-cultural civic blue print. And yet, a place like Cape Town, despite efforts over the years by even organisations like the Association for Visual Arts, has not clinched a deal with remarkable public art.

Again, in the suggestions to be considered for the Cape Town provincial site, according to the website, little of substance is promised. Play-play it seems to be. Amusement as a nimble way of engagement.                   

Of course humour and playfulness are not excluded in the manner of important public art, but could it please be witty and clever. After all it needs to be taken seriously – for some time, if not for all future.

Presence of place is a key factor in “anchoring” such a sculpture (or whatever). It could be complimentary or invasive, but it needs to have a consciousness of its space.

In this Cape Town case, it’s a newly-reconfigured plaza, corner of Dorp and Long, in the hub of that buzzing metropolitan rainbow street.

The revamped provincial building with its new silly, senseless criss-cross beams is perhaps the reason for some humour slipping into some of the proposals. There are balls, flags, seats, and a terrible bird cage among the entries chosen.

Some designs, as can be expected, are show-off constructs of a technical and/or architectural nature. Ho-hum. Then there are one or two “arty” suggestions – public sculptures in, lets say, the more classic sense.

Better-known names – at least with some public art track record – are Gavin Young, Brett Murray, Jaco Sieberhagen and Jacques Coetzer. From the small pictures it is difficult to get an idea what their suggestions may turn out to be, but let’s say the excitement level is fairly low.         

Brett Murray’s proposal is called Same Same, and references a hanging sculpture he made for Parliament in 2005 that features four generic profiles of South Africans. The new work continues the thought. Six large colourful “heads” are playfully placed on the podium. 

“Metaphorically, the heads look to the past and to the future,” says Murray.

They may remind viewers of the challenges of building a new democracy.

“The heads have become abstracted figures and are now crowded together. There is an implied celebration of this coming together. A festive conjoining. The title hints at these bonds that unite us.”

Other finalists are Alan Munro, Craig Cockcraft, Laduma Ngxokolo (with Jaco Sieberhagen), Gert Swartz, Leonard Miller, Liva Dudareva, Michael Korycki, Ofentse Letebele, Paul Mesarcick, Robert Bowen, Rodan Heart, Ross Jenkin, and Tsai & Christo.

In all fairness, one must give these artists and designers space.

The brief from the Western Cape government was tough bureaucratese to chew: “The piece must highlight the chosen theme of ’20 Years of Freedom and Democracy’ while incorporating the World Design Capital 2014 theme of ‘Live Design, Transform Life’. It should depict the extraordinary history and diversity of Cape Town’s community, while still pointing to the city’s aspirations of the future.”

The budget is R1-million, of which R900 00 is for construction and materials, bagging the winner R100 000 – these days not a large amount of money for any art.

The judges are Nomafrench Mbombo, Western Cape minister of cultural affairs; Marilyn Martin, former director of the South African National Gallery; Beverley Schafer, provincial legislator; Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, Cape Town Partnership; Zayd Minty, culture manager for Cape Town; Jay Pather, director of the Gordon Institute for arts and Jo Noero, architect.

By April 15 next year, they will have to decided whether to go for toy art or something more solid. It will be unveiled on September 27 2015.

The play-play “Open House” it is
It took the panel of judges less time than indicated in official information, but they concluded that artist Jacques Coetzee’s “Open House” is to be installed on the podium outside the Western Cape Government building “celebrating 20 years of Democracy and Freedom”.

One of 16 finalists from 85 competition submissions for the R1-million project, the 46-year-old Coetzee’s public artwork comprises a corrugated metal construction resembling a three-storey doll’s house painted bright red. It will be 10 metres high.

According to the official media release, Open House is a multi-use public space, which could be used for artistic performance or be a speakers’ corner. “Like democracy, Open House is a space for public engagement, of various kinds, whether live music, theatre, public exhibition or just a place to sit and watch the world go by on Long Street.”

It is scheduled to be unveiled on April 27 next year. Play play, indeed.

View all the submissions here.

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Melvyn Minnaar
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