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March 4, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Blight on the Landscape

Keeping Wellington beautiful in spite of bad public art

At the entrance to the Denver International Airport stands a blue monstrosity. Eyes glowing red and rearing in wild anger, the famous (and publically funded) blue mustang sculpture stands at 32 feet tall, perplexing flight passengers as their last reminder of the city’s artistic prowess—or lack thereof.

Artistic prowess is something Wellington has never been short of. Known as the cultural capital of New Zealand, it’s earned itself a reputation for its quirky creativity and modern aesthetics, much of which is manifested in the city’s public art. Despite budget cuts and civic scrutiny, expenditure on public art is justified by governing bodies all over the world because the visual attraction of any living area is an important part of its appeal and reputation. This is particularly true of Wellington. Currently, over 73 publically funded sculptures are featured around the city, and while some—like the ‘Ferns’ Civic Square sphere—are popular and iconic, others have been criticised for their damning combination of unsightliness and cost.

While not as disturbing as Denver’s satanic Blue Mustang (which killed its sculptor by falling on his head), Wellington’s most recent public art disaster was the Rugby World Cup Sculpture. Despite the hefty $350,000 price tag, public disdain pooled around its subject matter and unattractiveness. Officially unveiled in August 2011 by a beaming Mayor Wade-Brown, the Wellington City Council-commissioned piece claims to show rugby players contesting a line-out as the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean swirl beneath them. Less a tribute to sporting ethos, the zombie-like players rising from cartoon waves not only display dubious technique but look disproportionate from various angles, which is what one might expect from a company that specialises in film props. For this, we can blame Weta Workshop. The concept and construction were left in the hands of the special effects leader, where Sir Richard Taylor and a team of 35 others spent over a year crafting the bronze and concrete artwork. When asked about the choice of artistic direction, WCC Arts Advisor Eve Armstrong praised the company as “an outstanding example of a creative enterprise based in the city, they are highly regarded internationally and we have successfully partnered with them on another sculpture project in the past (i.e. Tripod in Courtenay Place)”.

Though the sculpture’s appearance has polarised many who wondered about the level of public input, Ms Armstrong stressed its collaborative aspect, “The concept was also made public and media stories featured the design and proposed costs. Local and international sculptors were involved in the creation of the Rugby World Cup sculpture”. The partnership between the WCC and the Wellington Sculpture Trust (WST) has usually yielded aesthetically in-tune pieces, such as the Botanical Garden’s sculpture walk. So what went wrong with the RWCS? The issue is public input, or rather, public apathy. Though the funds used to beautify our city are our own, the longstanding precedent in artistic matters is to let ‘the experts’ handle it. In order to prevent public art from becoming a tacky homage to the collective bad taste of the masses, the WCC relies on the ‘expert’ advice of the Public Arts Panel and the WST. These bodies guide the development of public art activity, with one exception. Murals.

Without exploring the high art/low art dichotomy, murals—the lowliest form of public art—are deemed lowbrow enough to warrant public involvement. As described by Ms Armstrong, “In other cases, such as a mural, Council will facilitate a consultation process that allows the local residents and relevant stakeholders to have input. This consultation is typically through the local residents’ association, community centres and other relevant groups e.g. mana whenua, schools, business owners. This process can involve sharing and discussing the artist’s concept and designs with members of the local community. Once again, there is no single way to do this. Some mural projects directly involve local residents in the creation of the mural—this may be through generating ideas or participating in painting the mural. Other murals can involve a direct commission for a single artist. In all cases, artists are asked to respond to the local context and community”. When it comes to something as visible—and expensive—as sculptural pieces, should the public play a more integral role in the selection of our visual atmosphere? Would we even want to? The subjective nature of art makes it impossible to create an aesthetic which pleases everyone. Yet bad art is like pornography—“you’ll know it when you see it”.

Aside from obvious expenses like materials, the Council cited the scale and longevity of the artwork, site issues (engineering, installation, health and safety) and the experience and reputation of the artists as standard issues taken into account when spending public money. Yet the funding question re-emerges. Does the monetary value of a public work of art equate to the level of importance of the event that it was selected to commemorate? “In this case, the Council did wish to have a large scale sculpture for the Rugby World Cup so that it would be the centrepiece of our celebrations and a draw card for visitors. Once the concept was developed, Weta Workshop costed it and this subsequently formed the basis for the budget request that was consulted on in our Annual Plan. The funding for the sculpture was specifically consulted as part of our draft 2010-11 Annual Plan. Councillors voted for to fund this project which was paid for by commercial ratepayers”

For $350,000, the Wellington public have an unsightly permanent reminder of an event that—while important nationally—has had little impact on the city’s cultural identity and short-changed businesses who had expected an economic boost. The ultimate insult is the city’s own representation within the sculpture. If viewers look closely, they can make out a simplistic Beehive, surrounded by a tiny, non-descript cityscape. With factors like “benefit to Wellington” and “uniqueness to Wellington” listed as funding criteria for public art, one has to wonder if the RWCS was commissioned in a moment of hype-fuelled folly. Because public art is important. Wellington is currently hosting an international arts festival, and its aesthetic beauty is, in many ways, a reflection of us. Which is why ugly art—like the RWCS—ruins it for everyone.

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