Integrated and Independent Public Art - a Rainy Day's Tour in London


Integrated and Independent Public Art - a Rainy Day's Tour in London

Holidaying in London this week, I took the opportunity to tour some of the city's current contemporary artworks set in public space. Using this fabulous guide published by Tate, I circled the ones from the 21st century, with a special emphasis on integrated public art. Here's what I found.

Our first stop was the Sculpture In The City -project, this year organized for the fifth time in the streets between the skyscrapers of a business district. As it is a yearly event with changing artworks, it was not a surprise to see the works being mostly independent sculptures. I'm always a bit skeptical when a city setting is used like a gallery space, where works are "dropped" with sometimes very little consideration for their relation to their surroundings. Still, an artwork, all-tough formally independent, can have a very strong contextual relationship to its surroundings. Below are a couple of my favorites.

Days of Judgement - Cats 1&2 by Laura Ford interacts beautifully with the passing crowd. You'll find more photos here on her website.

Damien Hirst's Charity works great against the background of the business district.

Sculpture in the City also had its own Ai Weiwei, and it was interesting to see a work of his in a public setting after just seeing his exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. The metal surfaces of the bike installation, titled Forever, glimmered in front of the shiny glass surfaced Gherkin Building. Like this:

After the temporarily installed works of Sculpture in the City, we wondered trough the city to see a couple of integrated artworks, a field in which I am myself most interested in when it comes to public art.

The first one I want to mention was Thomas Heatherwicks Paternostre Vents, a work that to me somehow hovers between being an independent sculpture, and an integrated artwork. Heatherwick describes the project as follows:

"It is a new public space containing a pre-existing underground electricity substation. This substation required a cooling system with outlet and inlet vents, but the client team was unhappy with the proposed solution for a single large object as it would turn the surrounding space into a corridor. The studio made use of the two existing holes in the concrete slab covering the substation, to reduce the overall size of the vent object by splitting the outlet part into two smaller vents – saving significant space by setting the inlet ducts into the ground using grilles flush with the pavement."  (read more on Heatherwick's website)

To me, the work transforms something that could have been ugly, huge and boring, into something imaginative. The transformation is so complete, that a passer by can not guess the function of the forms but will instead see them as a big abstract sculpture. I'm a hundred percent sure that this is a way better solution than what it could have been without artistic intervention, and in these surroundings, the forms work well. Still, as a general remark, I was left wondering, if this level of obscurity in terms of disguising the function of the form is always only a positive thing.  As my host in London put it; in integrated public art, is it valuable for the viewer to still be able to understand the underlying function of the structure? Will that make us see the work in a different light?

Next, I was very happy to get to see the beautiful Time and Tide, by Simon Patterson. The work includes text and light integrated in the pavement, as well as a illuminated wall with a picture of the surface of the moon. The work completely transforms a narrow pathway between two buildings that could without it feel quite unpleasant and confined. 

The text contains names, events, and places of significance from different eras of this historical area in the heart of this ancient city. 

During daytime, the text steals all the attention. Light however plays an important role in the work, installed both as stripes on the pavement and as a backlit, wall sized picture of the moon's surface - a landscape that has stayed the same while London has changed over the centuries.  

A layout of the area and a longer description of the work can be found on the website of Arup Associates, here. When in London, I highly recommend to check it out on site.

Out last stop was Michael Browns Bluerain, installed on the wall of the library building of the London School of Economics. Unfortunately, as we arrived, we heard the work has been out of function for a few weeks now. Hope they'll be able to fix it soon - while waiting you can see his videos of the work on Youtube, like this one: 

Brown describes the work: "Nestled into the corner of the library façade are more than 23,000 blue Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). To the casual observer, a shimmering cascade of light appears to flow down the wall but it becomes quickly evident that what one sees are actually words flowing through each other at different rates. By tracking one line of text, the observer will discover that they are looking at research being carried out within the library, bringing what is going on inside the library outside." 

A lot was left to discover after this one day tour. There's only one solution. To go back to London as soon as possible.

For those of you who don't mind a little help when touring the art treasures of a given city, consider buying this recently published book for the next time you're in London. I was lucky to get it as a gift - thanks Paula!