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As the entire world struggles to cope with the second wave of the pandemic, the art world has barely been able to keep itself afloat since the hit of the first wave. In some countries, they have secured themselves with a bit of air by using digital platforms to have viewings of exhibitions, even host art fairs (Art Basel, Art Miami). During these times when society needs art the most, either for therapeutic or recreational purposes, governments do not deem the arts a necessity. When a culture has been canceled and institutions close, artists take refuge in public spaces to engage with their audience.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,” 1991. Billboard. Installation view of Felix Gonzalez-Torres Billboard Project. Artpace Foundation, San Antonio, TX. Jan.–Dec. 2010. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation/Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery/photo Tom DuBrock

Art for the People

The realm of public art can take many forms such as murals, sculptures, graffiti, posters, architectural work, new digital media, even performance. In relation to land art, the main concern about public art is temporality and ephemerality. Through its process, the main function of the public artwork is to engage with the general public and create a critical discourse. Not only does public art exist as an aesthetic contribution to a community, but it also creates a sense of belonging.

Selling Ideas, Not Products

During the 1980s American artist, Jenny Holzer created Truisms which included a series of LED light installations throughout New York City. One of her most notable works includes Protect Me From What I Want (1982), which she installed in Times Square. This can be critiqued as a response to the globalized, capitalist society, and its site-specificity (location chosen with a purpose) Times Square is one of the busiest places in the USA where stock markets and shopping malls coexist.

Martin Firrell, Power & Gender series, collaboration with Clear Channel UK, 12 digital billboards throughout Storm, Adshel Live, and Wrap sites, London, 2019

Public Art is a Political Statement

In 1991, Félix González-Torres used billboards to exhibit his Untitled series, which he installed in twenty-four locations throughout New York City. These billboards originally used for advertisements showcased a black and white photograph of an unoccupied bed; this work was realized after the death of the artist’s partner who died of AIDS the same year. It is unknown who is missing in the bed, but the absence of the figure evokes a melancholy. It’s an intimate distance that we can all relate to; the public is confronted with the reality of what makes us human - essentially the fragility of life.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled.” 1991. Billboard, dimensions vary with installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York. Installation view at 11th Avenue and 38th Street, Manhattan (February 20–March 18, 2012), as part of Print/Out, The Museum of Modern Art, February 19–May 14, 2012. Photo by David Allison

Free for All

The importance of public art is that it establishes a non-conventional exhibition space. The audience does not need to enter a gallery or pay an entry to a museum to see art. Artist Barbara Kruger’s undeniably recognizable bold, sans-serif slogans have been catching-eyes since the 1980s. This year, Kruger used Hollywood boulevard to exhibit her latest series, Questions critiquing the gentrification of the neighborhood. She used the streets of Los Angeles to stick her slogans which are often mistaken for advertising, during the week of the annual art fair Art Frieze.

Art in Protest

In parallel to the pandemic this year, the Black Lives Matter protests initiated a movement from the public which quickly gained international awareness. Every city involved was consciously or subconsciously creating public art such as hand-made posters, body painting, performances, murals, and painting the streets. It became an act of engaging with each other to share a common message and leave a visual memory for the future to learn from the past.

The standstill that this pandemic brought the entire world to enabled artists to revisit the idea of visibility and quality of their artwork. Public art is meant to be confrontational, either uncomfortably or pleasantly. It should initiate a thought process, or create a conversation with a stranger; art is a necessity for the well-being of society. It comes back to the concern that Art should be accessible - on all levels - at all times.

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