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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Public Art speaks volumes

Clown Soldier - Rensselaer Riverfront Art Park

If you haven't had public art on your mind lately, there are two current reasons that maybe you should. One of them is the 9/11 sculpture commissioned by Saratoga Arts to be made out of World Trade Center steel by two prominent local sculptors, John Van Alstine and Noah Savett, which should have been unveiled last weekend but wasn't (background here). The other is the Living Walls project that also launched last weekend and will be the focus of a broad spectrum of events this weekend in Albany.

Amid all the hubbub surrounding the 9/11 anniversary, there was the unfortunate story of how this significant piece of art has been turned into a political football by various folks in Saratoga Springs, who decided they didn't like either the initially approved siting of the 25-foot-tall abstract memorial, or a second proposed location (for a good overview of the debacle, read Tom Keyser's coverage from the Times Union).

It always galls me when people who otherwise do not involve themselves with art suddenly feel entitled to act against it when they see something they don't like being given prominence in public. A couple of significant examples from the recent past include the removal of a long-standing sculpture, which critics compared to a collapsed staircase, from its spot near a government building in downtown Albany; and the very controversial and expensive removal of a monumental Richard Serra sculpture from a public square in Manhattan.

Tempered by Memory
Noah Savett and John Van Alstine
photo: Lawrence White
In the Saratoga case, the smell is the same - if this were a bronze image of a thoroughbred horse or a ballerina or a heroic firefighter, I am sure there would have been no outcry. But it's not. It's an abstract sculpture made of 9/11 tower steel, and some people are uncomfortable with what it represents to them, so they consider it their right to spontaneously become public art critics.

And so, instead of having been dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the monument sits in the steelyard where it was made, awaiting its fate. The good news is that the sculpture has been accepted, and a committee appointed by the mayor is set to meet so they can review and recommend sites; the Saratoga City Council will then consider these recommendations and make a final decision on where it will be placed.

Important to note: The funding for this work of art has come entirely from private donations. To everyone who gave money to support this endeavor, I would like to offer thanks for your courage and your generosity. This is not a friendly time for artists and arts organizations, and they need your support like never before.

Meanwhile, all over Albany and near the river in Rensselaer there are crews of local, national, and international street artists producing monumental works of their own on the walls of buildings and the supports of highway ramps. (Street art is the more palatable name now given to graffiti muralists, but these days it means a lot more than spray paint and gangster tags, incorporating stencils, broadsides, stickers, and other materials - even ceramic tile - into the often gigantic works these artists create.)

The Living Walls project writes on its website: Through a series of lectures, performances, and the involvement of some of the world’s great mural artists, we are looking to provide an education into public art. The Living Walls project is intent on creating an open dialogue between the people and city.

Sounds great to me. For more information, go to the website, facebook page, twitter, tumblr, etc., and you will find more events than you can shake a spray can at going on throughout the weekend. And then, for as long as they endure, there will be those walls.

GAIA and Nanook - Livingston Avenue


PlanetAlbany said...

I dissent. I don't see why members of the public are not entitled to express their opinions about the suitability of art designated for public spaces. Maybe artists should work on making it more appealing to the people. And what exactly is wrong with statues of heroic firefighters? The absence of any such work strikes many of us as a big problem with the Ground Zero memorial in NYC. I guess we dim-witted members of the public cannot get over the fact that several hundred firefighters and cops ran into and up the burning towers and lost their lives there, a fact which the officially designated memorial does not adequately recognize.

Roger Owen Green said...