A GAP IN THE FILL
ON GLORIOUS MISTAKES AND THE MANGY-NESS OF PUBLIC ART
A small card greets me when I reach my chair in the Whitechapel auditorium:
“get lost”, it instructs.
I’m already lost, or disoriented at least. Getting lost is somewhere near the center of my being as an artist, a sort of engine for it’s opposite – for finding things. I slip out the aisle, awkwardly aware of my on-the-edge-ness of the huddle of public art pioneers. We were all there early; Claire, Nato, Magdelena and Heather telling horror stories about similar events that had backfired. “Public art is exhausting” sighed Nato Thompson, before anything had began.
I briefly met Nato on arrival. He had been to the National Portrait Gallery, and we talked of Francis Alÿs’ night-time release of a fox in that space – an animal derivé, Raynard proudly wandering the halls of human artifice, opening up a third perspective amidst the gridlock of human gazes. Nato pulled out his iphone to show me a picture of a London fox,
“In Soho!” he exclaimed, “it was a bit….”
“mangy?” I suggested
Soho in fact derives its name from an old hunting cry, a reminder that the city of London has long been home to cultural encounters that extend beyond the human realm. There weren’t any foxes to be seen on Whitechapel Road, but the tree in my sight-line (a London Plane) seemed to be suffering from a skin condition, it’s flakey trunk worn and scuffed from endless notice pins, resting bodies, fingernail scratches. The Plane tree, now a common sight in London, was chosen by City planners due to its “tolerance of atmospheric pollution and root compaction”. Adaptable like the urban fox, it survives and out-competes, it is winning, but its existence is “mangy”.
I am taken by the prospect of a “mangy” public art, against the vogue (and funding stream) for ‘pretty city’ projects and the associated contribution that artists make to gentrification—and the inevitable displacement of low-income earners including, ironically, most artists. Resisting this paradox is but one good reason I can think of to challenge the assumption discussed in yesterday’s talk that public art is inherently ‘of the moment’, lacking the longevity of the plastic arts, it is in and for the present, satiating the predilections of today as opposed to initiating future introspection, or a conversation back and forth over time.
Can we scratch this, and extend the implications? The etymology of the word “mange” refers back to “the itch”, from the French “manger” it is also “hunger, appetite, itching” and “longing”. Mange makes for an uncomfortable existence in the here and now and calls for a constant shift in position. It is also inherently infectious, and is therefore potentially infinite. In response to the provocation set forth by Nato during Thursday’s panel discussion, “how will we navigate the next decade?”, the art forms that I propose as “mangy” representatives are not well fed by the present situation. Nor are they helping to sell inner-city neighborhoods by donning glossy coats. Rather more likely to be found emptying garbage bins of recycled history, they might well sacrifice recognition and self-image in the present tense for something that they itch for, something to be gleaned from outside of themselves. Hence the logic of real public art: the artist clears a space for something else to happen, a gap in the fill of everyday existence.
This itch coincides with Claire Doherty’s interest in “agitation”, the public art of disturbance or the production of a friction field for unlikely forms of social exchange. This, she explains, relies on the “creative illusion” that artists are capable of: the ability to “see things as though they were different”, and of course, to follow through and act as if they were. “You have to get under the skin of a place”, continued Claire, a process that can be uncomfortable, intense, and even aggressive at times. Perversely, agitation is by no means an uncommon precursor to empathy.
“Success is a cut where the work gets in” – Heather Morison
Artist and panel-speaker Heather Morison is likewise concerned with confronting and agitating apathetic responses to a given situation. When her installation of a 50ft ‘Megasaurus’ on Southsea Common in Portsmouth (Luna Park 2010) was unexpectedly torched and reduced itself to skeletal remains, the beast’s demise brought Southsea residents’ passions to life. As letters of love and admiration for the now extinct ‘saurus piled in, and her small children mourned the loss of “their dinosaur”, Heather noted the success of an artwork that had sacrificed itself in place of such a deep impression. The fact that the blaze had no direct relationship to Heather, not to mention the explicitly destructive nature of the event, complicates the notion of “success” entirely: here satisfaction pivots on the artist’s willingness to relinquish control, to initiate a situation and let it play itself. Expressing what a human individual could never hope to accomplish alone, the Megasaurus quite literally brought itself to life through the event of its explosive expiration.
The mythological potential of ‘Southsea’s flaming dinosaur’ further transforms what was once a temporary structure with a stable relationship to time and space into an infectious fable with the structure of classical Greek tragedy. Heather’s ‘successes’ extend to perhaps less sensational turns her work has undertaken by itself, such as a structure that sheltered smokers and bingers in a public park in Milton Keynes (‘Cave’, 2011), unexpected happenings which she refers to as feeling “uncomfortable-pleasant”…”A work can be a success and a failure”, she surmised, whilst admitting that she often kept “the edge” of a project, the prickly and unpredictable bit that meant most to her, private.
With the complex web of agencies surrounding any work of public art (including human, natural, planned and erratic forces), it might well be asking too much of an artist – or the wrong question at least – to have to justify the ethical outcomes of a freshly ‘gapped’ social space, particularly if we follow Magdalena Malm in her call for “rewriting the position of the artist”, by displacing the ‘author’ from the center of the work and locating an audience in the middle instead.
It was refreshing and necessary to hear Nato Thompson declare that now, more than ever, there is increasing financial and institutional support for brave and adventurous public art. “We’ve won”, he pronounced, referring to the sturdy reputation and accelerating force field that is Creative Time NY, along with the increasing clout of Bristol-based Situations and Magdalena’s institutional reform of national arts funding through Public Art Agency Sweden “…But we’re tired”, he admitted, reminding me of the grotty looking fox he encountered in Soho, exhausted from its search through the scraps of London past. The fox and the London plane tree are members of the public too. Perhaps they mirror our ongoing struggles as artists in the over-crowded city realm, reminders that spaces are scarce, rent is immense, and institutional support for experimental work remains an exceptional circumstance. Should we, as a collective ecology and individually as artists tolerate ‘atmospheric pollution and root compaction’? Could the next decade’s work unpack this saturated space?
“We are what we pretend to be” is Nato’s contention, and I’m pretending to believe him. There is plenty to scratch, and plenty to open, if we relinquish our status as ‘cultural producers’ and concentrate instead on turning what might appear to be a lack of something, a scare-city, into a space of potential. Like a patch of bald fur, vulnerable but suddenly sensate, one resists the urge to quickly stitch it up and instead presents it openly, perhaps critically to others: “what do we want to believe in”?
Fox in Soho, photograph by Nato Thompson, 2015
Heather Morison, ‘Cave’, Milton Keynes, 2011
 Francis Alÿs, The Nightwatch (2004)
 Wikipedia, entry for “London Plane”
 Nato Thompson, 17.04.15