Recently, I and my RK&A colleagues finished a project for the Indianapolis Museum of Art looking at the effects of Mary Miss’ public art installation FLOW: Can You See the River?. FLOW was conceptualized around the idea that the White River is underappreciated and even ignored by Indianapolis residents who do not fully understand the importance of the White River to the city (see http://flowcanyouseetheriver.org/ for more information on the project). I was thrilled to work on such an interesting project, and the evaluation results were mostly positive (see http://informalscience.org/reports/0000/0688/2012_RKA_IMA_FLOW_Summ_dist.pdf for evaluation results). It is rare for me to have internal struggles with projects we work on, so when I felt a tension with this project, I thought it worthy of exploration.
As part of our work we examined people’s engagement with the installation. But if I were to honestly answer the question, “Would I engage with the FLOW installation?” (imagining that I lived in the Indianapolis area), my answer would be no. In fact, when I consider the amount of public art that I have engaged with in the last year, it is fairly limited, and not for lack of exposure. My realization is confounding because I am what some may consider the expected audience for public art installations. I have degrees in art history and art education and I am absolutely an “art person.” I love seeing museum exhibitions and collections of late 19th and early 20th century painting and enjoy attending biennials and triennials to keep up with what new things are happening in the art world. So why don’t I engage with more public art? In reflecting on that question, I have tried to think about the few public art pieces that have given me pause in the last year and the incidents surrounding them. Here are the experiences that stand out to me in order from what I would deem the least profound experience to the most profound experience:
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. I stopped here this past spring during an excursion to the Walker Art Center during the AAM conference. As such, it was a planned trip in a time slot I had already allocated for art viewing. I was also on a pilgrimage to see Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry—an iconic image of public art. The James Turrell that I happened upon was a bonus (thank you sculpture garden brochure for pointing it out!). While technically my experience was a public art experience, I would say that it was more aligned with a traditional museum experience than a public art experience. I was on a scheduled trip to a museum in a city I was visiting that allowed me to see several artworks in a single location, including one on my must-see list.
Kat Healey’s Coming Home. My interest in public art in airports is hit or miss, but this work at the Philly airport caught my eye one day, and I have stopped at it multiple times since (of course, never when I am on my way home). I wouldn’t consider this piece to be something that would naturally capture my attention, but the title “Coming Home” caught my eye. Something about the poignant contrast of the words “coming home” when I was getting ready to leave home for a trip struck me enough to slow me down. I can’t remember if I read the identification label first or took in the whole work, which is fairly large and detailed, but either way, the image of the work has stayed with me. Who knows if I would have paid it any attention had the artwork been titled otherwise (see http://www.phl.org/arts/current/Pages/KayHealy.aspx for more on the installation).
Charles Ray’s Boy with a Frog. I was immediately enamored with this piece when I came across it in Venice. I had spent three months in Venice almost five years ago and loved coming to the Punta della Dogana for a beautiful view of the city. I was surprised by this new statue in a familiar place and also struck by how the newness and bright whiteness of the statue was in stark contrast with the city, which is known for its history, lack of change, and beautiful decay. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information on the piece nearby and had to wait to get back to my hotel to Google it. While I wasn’t particularly taken by the explanation of the work and don’t fully understand its intentions, I still find the piece to be extremely striking and perfectly located (see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/05/arts/design/05voge.html?_r=0 for more on the sculpture).
So how do these experiences explain my gut instinct that I probably wouldn’t engage with FLOW? First, I can’t see myself scheduling a visit to FLOW like I had for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden since Spoonbridge and Cherry has a special iconic gravitas, which FLOW does not. And secondly, in my experiences with Coming Home and Boy with a Frog there was some sort of “contrast” that hooked me—in one case a contrast to my feelings and in the other the aesthetic contrast of the work and its setting. “Contrast,” however, is not a word that I would use to describe a FLOW experience (revealing, informative, about a relevant problem, and subtly surprising are more apt words for FLOW). Yet, two of the three experiences recounted above (2 ½ if you count my unexpected James Turrell encounter at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden) were highly serendipitous encounters, and maybe, had I happened upon FLOW I would have had a different response. Once I looked at FLOW through a rationalized, evaluative lens, I couldn’t turn back. If reflecting upon these experiences has shown me anything though, it is that you never know what type of public art may catch your eye and offer a bit of unexpected meaningfulness—I suppose that’s the true value and beauty of public art.