There is a lot of discussion currently happening in Ireland about new public art policies. There is a rash of symposia, seminars and conferences, which I believe to be very valuable but can be a source of fatigue as well as creative sustenance. Sometimes too I am suspicious of these talk shows and what they really hope to achieve. I have however participated in a number of them as I believe it’s important to try to make a contribution to a public discourse, and I can’t deny that for a day’s work I definitely get paid better to talk about art than to make it.  

I think it’s generally accepted at this point in Ireland that many mistakes have been made with the public art commissioned in the past. The image that frequently comes to mind with this is the image of a semi-abstract or semi-figurative piece of sculpture that is generally uncomfortably sited, sometimes disowned or vandalised. Moving from the rubric of site-specificity, in the eighties in the States this occurrence was known as the ‘turd on the plaza’ or ‘plop art’. The question of why these artworks failed however has arguable not really been tackled. Is it the fault of the artist, the artwork, the site? Even the commissioner?

It worries me that in the moves towards making public art more temporary and ‘community’-oriented that nothing or little in the approach towards the commissioning of the work will really change, that the problems of the past will remain unexamined and fundamentally unsolved. There is no quick fix. It also worries me that the language of this discourse has grown up very quickly and terms get used interchangeably by different communities of interest. Some problems I have: 

  1. This seminar asks the question Is this type of activity sufficient as an arts occurrence in itself, or as an opportunity to interact with the public? I really believe that this is a very difficult and unhelpful idea of how this kind of practice operates. We have to move towards an understanding that works towards ‘both’ rather than ‘either/or’. The relationship of the ‘public’, ‘audience’ or ‘community’ is fundamental to this work. Somewhere between the artist and the audience lies the work, the practice, and this is what we need to be talking about. The public commission should neither be weighted in favour of ‘the artist’ nor ‘the public’ – it should privilege the work itself.
  2. The ongoing problem of ‘plop art’. If no discussion happens about the quality of practice – whether this is to with the quality of engagement between artist and physical or social site in the reception or creation of the work – there is a risk that the ‘community’ becomes the new site for plop art rather than the public square. Just because the artwork is temporary doesn’t mean that the criteria for engagement, or the sense of responsibility, should be more lax. The openness of commissioners and local authorities to different forms of temporary works should be welcomed and applauded, but cautiously.
  3. Something unusual is happening currently in art practice where there is some possibility of shared space between mainstream art practice (gallery based, socially engaged practice) and community art practice. Recent texts and projects by writers and curators such as Grant Kester and Mary Jane Jacob seem to offer the possibility of convergence in the discourse between these two divergent spheres. This possibility is intriguing, beguiling, and deeply challenging. Are the points of reference, the values in the work, moving from the same space?
  4. Another relatively new trend is the development of ‘public art’ as a kind of specialisation. It remains to be deeply examined what is meant by ‘public art’ – is it solely a question of public money? Is Arts Council–funded work that is sited in a publicly-funded gallery somehow inherently less ‘public’? And what are the implications of working as a state-funded ‘public artist’?