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evaluating the importance and presence of public art 

The Swiss-born Paul Klee worded his feelings with brevity, saying “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” Unbound by a specific style, color palette or  composition, public artwork is a part of our shared history, evolving culture and our collective memory. It reflects and reveals the temperament of our community and adds a layer of meaning through its hues. As a response to the dynamic world, artists reflect their inner vision and perception through their pieces and create a shared public experience of an artistic understanding of the same.

“It’s a unique way to bring people’s attention to the effect of art in their lives, engage and interact with the depiction the artist proposes. It introduces art to people in a way that’s non-threatening, especially for people that feel like they don’t understand art,”

Parvathi nayar, one of India’s acclaimed contemporary artists

It can create civic icons and dialogue, but it can also transform playgrounds, train stations, barren walls, traffic stops, hospitals, water treatment facilities, and airports into more vibrant expressions of human imagination. It serves as a catalyst for community (re)generation.

“It tends to take a larger issue and help connect with it in a space that most people or even different kinds of people could see; especially crowds that may not frequent galleries,” Parvathi adds. It stands as a tale interspersed between the past, present and future, between disciplines, and between ideas. Freely accessible and recently expanding in scope and application, what distinguishes public art is the unique association of how it is made, where it is, and what it means. 

Environmental Public Art

Gentrification and ecological issues began to surface in public art practices in the 1970s-80s  – both as a commission motive and as a critical focus brought in by artists. Madras Art Guild 2020’s show at the VR Mall, Chennai, followed the theme of sustainability. “Topical in this day and age, we can’t afford to ignore it,” says Sumi Gupta, the curator of the arts-based fest. The installations, fine arts, workshops, film screenings and even the fashion show organized, all revolve around sustainability. In collaboration with the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Chennai Photo Biennale, along with numerous artists and corporate, the Madras Art Guild 2020 offered an artistic immersion in one of Chennai’s newest and suave public spaces.

However, this also gives rise to the concept of sustainability. Promoted by the United Nations since the 1980s, sustainable development includes economic, social and ecological aspects – all that weave the threads of public artwork. Sustainable public art would ideally include plans for urban regeneration and disassembly. In recent years, public art programs have aimed at redesigning urban spaces and architecture to incorporate green areas with their installations. These forms of initiatives drive their own chronicle of ecological awareness through a green urban design process. Singapore’s novel approach to incorporating green spaces through artistic design, technology and urban planning is the quintessential example. 

Culture and Society 

A visual mechanism for understanding other cultures and perspectives, it reinforcing social connectivity with different communities. Research has shown that public art directly influences how people see and connect with a place, providing access to aesthetics and a sense of appreciation and value for diversity. Aesthetics has been observed as one of the top three characteristics why residents attach themselves to a community.

It functions as a medium of empowerment as well. Upasana Asrani’s instillation titled Wings of Paradise was based on the theme of empowerment – a tribute to the amazing women in her life. Featured at the Madras Art Guild, she says, “This instillation is evocative of my own personal journey, from who and where I was, to the person I have become. I feel a sense of empowerment especially through the medium of art. It has added a new dimension to my life that I have never known before, and the angel wings are an expression of that”.

Formed on the principle of ‘Art for All,’ St+art India works on art projects in public spaces. Since 2015, St+art India has transformed walls with the expression and imprint of several artists. Khanna market and Meherchand Market (New Delhi) were made into a public art gallery. The aim of the foundation is ‘to make art accessible to a wider audience by taking it out of the conventional gallery space and embedding it within the cities we live in – making art truly democratic and for everyone.’

Society is influenced by changing opinions, instilling values and transforming experiences across space and time that art brings to the table. There is greater literature on how the experience of art affects the fundamental sense of self. While the creative harvest of a time period can be considered the repository of a society’s collective memory, public art is an open journal recording change and modern hues. It captures the feeling and creative pulse of the period over recorded history. 

A Voice of Change 

Often described as a vehicle for social change, public art is also a medium of reflection for those politically and socially disenfranchised. In this way, it also functions as a social intervention. Explained by Binoy Kumar in his exhaustive book, Art and Society, artists became fully engaged in civic activism by the 1970s and many adopted a pluralist approach to public art. Defined by Suzanne Lacy as “socially engaged, interactive art for diverse audiences with connections to identity politics and social activism,” the approach eventually developed into the “new genre public art.”

With the recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), public art in the form of protest banners, slogans and artwork carried around the rallies were a clear reflection of stances and questions raised. A sense of solidarity and identity raised, several pieces of public artwork have spun through the dominant narrative or re figured the tale of a secular India. Rather than metaphorically discussing social issues, practitioners explicitly empower marginalized groups while maintaining aesthetic appeal.

Cher Krause Knight states, “Art’s publicness rests in the the quality and impact of its exchange with audiences.. at its most public, art extends opportunities for community engagement but cannot demand particular conclusion,” it introduces social ideas but leaves room for the public to come to their own conclusions. Not one for conclusion, but public art leaves room for quiet reflection and interpretation that rejuvenates ideas and feelings that wash over its spectator. 

  • Great, thanks for sharing this blog. Much thanks again. Awesome. Kathye Herby Swen

    November 23, 2020
  • You are an great writer! I just saved your webpage. Hedi Adamo Cleopatre

    November 30, 2020
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