Art in Public Spaces: Screens in (and of) Athens at a Time of Crisis
The display of art in public spaces inaugurates a field for public debate during the third decade of the 18th century. The public salon brings the social classes side-by-side, facing art. It also creates the need for mediators between the artwork and the viewers (critics). In other words, it was at exactly that time, just a few years before the revolution, that the concept of the public was created. Furthermore, commentators very soon realized the volatile and hard-to-define nature of the concept of the public. For example, it was noticed already from the start that the public constantly changes attitudes, being frequently rather insecure on their aesthetic judgments, and often being manipulated by those who for various reasons (due, for example, to their authoritative position) feel more confident about their judgments. What I wish to demonstrate here is how the artwork, when exposed to public view becomes a kind of screen displaying (the public’s) beliefs, attitudes and, in one word, ideologies. This phenomenon may have been described for the first time in pre-revolutionary France as Thomas Crow has argued, nevertheless it is particularly intense in contemporary art and especially in the context of site specific art. I will start by examining an emblematic case that comes from the 1980s.
I would like to discuss the case of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc”. I will attempt to show how the controversy that arose because of this artwork helped to spotlight a series of attitudes and points of view that shed clear light on an entire era. Then I will proceed to examine specific cases that functioned in this way in Athens at the time of crisis. I will discuss the cases of artists that set a screen in a public space, a screen that caused the appearance on it of data waiting to be read.
In the 1980s Richard Serra constructed and defended to the very end, i.e. until its final dismantlement and removal from the square where it was installed, an artwork that still serves as a landmark. A brief recap of the facts: Following a commission from the public sector, Serra constructed in Federal Plaza, situated in the southern part of Manhattan, the Tilted Arc. The location: a square surrounded by postclassical, mostly federal-office buildings. In its middle stood a fountain that never operated. The object: an arc 37 meters long, 3.7meters high and 6.4 cm thick, made of COR-TEN steel that almost completely blocked the plaza from one end to the other with the convex side facing the fountain.
Following reactions from those working in the surrounding buildings that were mainly instigated by the Chief Judge Edward D. Re and after the collection of signatures and a public hearing, the sculpture was dismantled on the night of March 15th, 1989. Previously, Serra had refused to relocate the sculpture, arguing that the transfer would mean its destruction.
An important body of data, either in favor of Serra or openly hostile, resulted from the public hearing. As expected the adversely disposed talked about a rusty wall of shame, a source of infections etc. The security service officer said that the sculpture caused a potential security breach, because it stood like a huge concave wall pointing towards the two big Federal office buildings of the plaza. She claimed that it could be used as an array utilized by terrorists to channel the waves of a bomb explosion, like a giant barrel aimed at law and order.
Judge Re himself, the instigator of the campaign against “Tilted Arc”, was extremely revealing. Beyond the problems with graffiti, garbage around it, the problem with rats that has ensued and the psychological pressure that the rusty wall creates to the people that would like to relax at the plaza, the judge raised the issue of security as follows:
“[…] equally important is the issue of the failure of adequate surveillance for security reasons. The placement of this wall along the square impedes the visual range of the security staff, which has no way to know what takes place on the other side”.
Aptly, Douglas Crimp, one of Serra’s defenders noted that if a public sculpture has managed to project on it such a clear indication of the contempt with which the Federal Sector treats the citizen, then it has served a weighty historic purpose.
“We now have written into the public record, for anyone who wishes to read it, the fact that the “federal sector” expects only the worst from us, that we are all considered potential loiterers, graffiti scribblers, drug dealers, terrorists”.
Crimp refers to the steel surface as a screen where public reactions are projected. In what follows I will work on this concept.
The 1990s will mark the full canonization of Serra by art history and obviously the “Tilted Arc” case played a not insignificant role. His works are gradually confined mainly in Museums. In a recent interview he ascribes the widespread acceptance of his sculptures nowadays to the introduction of the curve in his shapes’ molding vocabulary. But if we examine more closely his “Torqued Ellipses”, which greatly contributed to his popularity, e.g., those that are currently installed in Dia, Beacon, we realize that this explanation about the concave might be rather naive, quite uncharacteristic of the theoretically ultra-sophisticated Serra.
In an idyllic rural location, one hour outside of New York City, in a minimalist hideaway, -former Nabisco factory-, the viewer, already predisposed by the landscape, the garden, the heavy connotations the “Dia” carries, is subjected to a phenomenological type of self-observation that in some instances, when you start to feel suffocated under the pressure of the asymmetric steel walls that surround you, borders the painful. The “Tilted Arc” clearly operated more subtly. Although it stood on a square, it was masterfully guiding the employees on break from their job, the pedestrians from the surrounding streets on the path that Serra had planned. The sculpture was not symbolic, it did not convey any message, it functioned by interacting with human bodies in space. The “Torqued Ellipses” do the same thing, although now the choice is up to you. As a member of the art world you are obliged to exercise self-reflection regularly. The screen I mentioned above has left the public space, where in the 1980s recorded a full range of views caused by the objects and has moved to the art aficionados retreats for private use.
After Serra’s interventions in space, interventions of a permanent nature, that usually took an aggressive-competitive stance towards the pre-existing architecture, I want to come to Greece and examine three artistic interventions in public space. Anticipating any objections I want to declare that they are not of comparable order with Serra’s works, since on the one hand we have sculpture of monumental character (at least in scale) and on the other hand ephemeral, almost subtle initiatives. Nevertheless, I put them side-by-side, since in all cases, the object or the action operate as screens by not overtly declaring their status as art-works, therefore permitting a free expression of reactions and delineating attitudes that probably would not be expressed in the face of an artifact recognized as work of art.
Ιo Chaviara in a series of interventions in public spaces titled “In Honor of” selects well-known sculptures and attaches to them the black armband of mourning. Socrates and Plato outside the Academy, Pericles at Kotzia square, Rigas Feraios at the Propylaea of the University, Kostis Palamas at the Cultural Center, all of them thoughtfully and with stoicism endure mourning.
The artist is faced with several dilemmas concerning an intervention strategy on the monument’s surface, that lead to crucial decisions either due to a widespread sensitivity towards the uses of space in the years of crisis, or because of the consequent more intensive police supervision.
Chaviara finally made the decision to create an ephemeral intervention, since the fabric armband can be removed easily (usually by the employees of the municipality, who in this case show a rather unusual haste). She also deliberately avoided moments full of tension, associated with protests against specific measures because, as she declares, she is not willing to “wrap” and “serve” her action to anyone. She picks days and times with heavy traffic. The crowd around her makes her invisible. She has written about her rationale: “I approach the statue like an object-container-of-meaning to declare publicly the “ailing” state of the society, a confused society in a state of shock”.
Similarly allusive, less sarcastic though, is the function of another intervention in public space by Iraklis Kappa: in his case as a part of a comprehensive project that includes a website with a map and relevant text, the artist marks in pink the broken –due to violent incidents- marbles, in various areas of Athens. He attempts to make the wounds even more visible. Carrying out his interventions mainly at night, he chooses, just like Chaviara, not to act alone. These signs disappear very quickly. Some eye-witnesses misconceive him as a member of a damage-reporting agency and show their approval. Those on the other hand who perceive what is happening are divided. Apart from those who believe that record-labeling is legitimate, there are also those who perceive it as vandalism.
The artist claims that this treatment is associated with marble fetishizing. As a matter of fact, the material with which the modern Greek State is par excellence identified is marble. This is what connected it with the ancient glory, and using its glittering façade was built fitting with the modernist protocols of visualization.
The project “Tryfilos Porthitis” (“Profligate Conqueror”) by the Arbit City Group is not exactly an intervention in public space. It is rather a comment on the intervention in public space by funding institutions of large redevelopment projects, often without prior public discussion. The comment was submitted at the last Biennale of Athens (“AGORA”). The technocratic, un-artistic way of presentation was pivotal to the adoption of an ironic detached attitude that also functioned as a reactions-recordings screen.
The project in general received rather positive than mixed reviews: on the one hand for its “neat” character (which, of course, conceals a merciless sarcasm), and on the other hand because we are once again in the context of an entrenched institution, even as open as this one wanted to appear (“AGORA”). Here the reactions are composed, just like those in Dia. Regarding the critique of spatial planning solutions that the project supposedly promotes, there are recorded opinions that welcome the solution of an underground pathway for protesters in order not to disrupt the orderly everyday life of the city, and the raised flowerbed that doubles as a wall and it will not be plagued by the mindless walkers, while offering greenery and oxygen. The bench elevated in 4 meter height in front of the Democrition University was considered simply impractical. In a short time, if the project is installed once more, a consensus may have been formed regarding the bench as well, recognizing the fact that since de facto no one will be able to sit there, the same applies to all those who are denied the right to sit there (let alone lie on).
Concluding: Commenting on the point of criticism present in the work of Richard Serra in the 1980s, a point largely neutralized when it became a starting point for self-reflection, an aspect that personally I do not underestimate at all, I suggested to regard some interventions in public space in Athens at a time of crisis as projection screens. Without assuming an evident stance, they make things appear and they record. They record what we think of the space that we perceive as public and of those we share it with. What should be the position of the objects in it? What are the fetish-objects we distribute in it, consecrating certain points or areas? In this respect I consider the above interventions important. The artist lights a match behind a huge screen set up in a public place. She ignites it and it starts recording shadows that must be interpreted. Some will ask her to extinguish the match, others to burn the screen down. I, personally consider that it suffices that she set it on fire and I watch the screen come to life.
AGORA. 4th Athens Biennale 2013 Guidebook, Athens Biennale, 2013.
Crimp, Douglas, “Redefining Site Specificity”, in Hal Foster / Gordon Hughes (eds), October Files 1. Richard Serra, The MIT Press, 2000.
Crow, Thomas E., Painters and Modern Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, Yale University Press, 2000 (1985).
Krauss, Rosalind, Passages in Modern Sculpture, The MIT Press, 1981 (1977).
Mc/Shine, Kynaston / Cooke, Lynne (eds), Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, The MoMA, 2007.
Weyergraf-Serra, Clara / Buskirk, Martha (eds), Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, Van Abbemuseum, 1988.