Public Sculpture; Inclusive & Exclusive Of The Public / by Geoff Harrison

In comparing the works of Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor (now Sir Anish Kapoor CBE RA), it strikes me that in terms of motivations they could have come from different planets.  I was thinking of this the other day whilst travelling on Melbourne’s City Link towards the Bolte Bridge, with that hideous yellow chopper leaning menacingly over the road.  As far as I’m concerned, this sculpture serves the cause of art in this country no favours at all.


There’s a long tradition in this kind of alienating sculpture.  For decades the American, Richard Serra has specialized in huge sculptures of steel which, should they collapse, would squash you like a bug.  But so what?  In her book “The Re-enchantment Of Art”, Suzi Gablik argues “we no longer need old authoritarian ideologies which demand that art be difficult, willfully inaccessible and disturbing to the audience.”  Modernism’s general themes seem to be alienation and displeasure with society, and the heroic and belligerent ego cut off from the social world.

The genesis of this displeasure may be the general horror felt by artists at the carnage of the First World War.  But that was a century ago and it’s time we moved on.  Gablik writes of modernism “loudly proclaiming the self sufficiency of art, the untrammeled self, the avant garde proceeding to scorn notions of responsibility towards the audience.”

Richard Serra                                                 TIlted Arc                                           Manhattan, 1981

Richard Serra TIlted Arc Manhattan, 1981

She cites the example of Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ installed at the Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981.  The 120 ft long, 73 ton leaning curve of steel could be considered the “epitome of uncompromising, modernist art.” GABLICK.  Some critics thought its willingness to confront the audience gave the work its moral dimension.  But the public hated it.  One employee at the plaza said it dampened our spirits every day….a hulk of rusty steel…and has no appeal.  A petition signed by 1300 employees in 1985 asked for its removal.

Serra sued the government who wanted to remove the sculpture claiming the government had “deliberately induced” public hostility to it.  The notion of artistic freedom is raised here.  But freedom in this issue could be interpreted as the power of having one’s way, pushing things around and being invulnerable.  Serra lost the case and in March 1989 the sculpture was finally removed from the plaza and taken off to storage in Brooklyn.  It hasn’t been publicly displayed since, in deference to the artist’s wishes.  Gablik asks whether the aesthetic value of an artwork can be sustained without responsibility to the social feedback it receives.

Anish Kapoor has different ideals.  In 2006, Kapoor installed “Cloud Gate” at the Millennium Park in Chicago to general acclaim.  It’s approximately 20 metres long and finished in seamless polished chrome.  The city didn’t know how to budget for it.  They initially set aside $9 million, but it cost $23 million – but hey, this is Chicago we are talking about.  A budget has also been set aside for daily cleaning.  The public adore it, they have found the work engaging, beguiling and it has become a popular meeting place.

Anish Kapoor                                                    Cloud Gate                                                    Chicago, 2006

Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate Chicago, 2006

Kapoor believes the idea that one is involved is fundamental to sculpture. He likes to take the viewer on a journey into a sculpture. His work engages the eyes, the nerves, the emotions.  You seem to be on the edge of being outside and inside the work. His breakthrough was being Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 1990.

Critics argue that Kapoor’s work is very accessible to the general public because it’s not based on a script that’s not evident in the work.  Kapoor says “I don’t have anything particular to say as an artist, I don’t have some grand message to give to the public.”  His exhibitions are all about experience - “It’s about not having too much to say to allow space for the viewer.”

Anish Kapoor                                  Dismemberment - Site 1                                  Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009

Anish Kapoor Dismemberment - Site 1 Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009