I was asked how to increase interactions with public sculptures, and my first thought was: “do you really want that?” Like the fairy stories where wishes become your nemesis.
For example, consider Brunswick Street in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, which was once alive with rock music. The plinth on which the statue of Mr Poetry perched was covered with band posters. This was the sculptor’s intention; “Post Bills Here” declares the stencil letters on the plinth. It was not the artist’s intention that the accumulated posters would then be set alight by drunken revellers, but it would happen regularly, making way for more.
A couple of trucks have hit Mr Poetry in his lifetime, but being a bronze sculpture can be repaired. After the death of the model, Adrain Rawlins, the sculpture became a memorial with the addition of another plaque. The sculptor intended neither of these. (For more on the statue see my post on Mr Poetry.)
When they are first made, sculptures are veiled. Some public statues are dressed up for religious or secular reasons. Statues were regularly dressed up in ancient Rome and Greece. The ancient Roman historian Suetonius reports that Emperor Caligula had a statue of himself that was dressed in an identical suit of clothing to the one that he would be wearing that day. Idols are bathed in milk, oils, perfumes and cosmetics. And my neighbours give their garden statues a fresh coat of paint. Hindu idols are covered in garlands of orange and yellow flowers. Statues might still be dressed on special occasions, like the Japanese Ojizo-sama or Kitsune statues with red bibs.
Melbourne street artists who have dressed up the statue of Redmond Barry in front of the State Library, or, more frequently, The Three Businessmen who brought their own lunch. At what point are these alterations and additions subverting the sculptor’s intention? When the prankster takes over the sculpture to create their own platform.
There are sculptures that the public use to illustrate the times: like Melbourne’s The Three Businessmen… dressed up in face masks for the bushfire and now for the COVID-19 virus. (I don’t have any photos of these statues as they were temporary; I wasn’t regularly visiting the city then.) The Three Businessmen… isn’t great as a sculpture, but it does work as a public sculpture. Accessible because it is not on a plinth. It presents the opportunity for public interactions, from putting a cigarette in one of their pursed lips to holding their hands and touching the hand so much that it broke off due to public interaction.
The public has an involuntary relationship with public art. People climb, skate on, or tag; some might even find it an obstruction, an intrusion, or even an object of oppression. Artists and the people who commission public art often think about increasing interactions with public art, but you don’t want all the interactions.
Generations of people may have sat on it and climbed on it; touching and sitting are the most common interactions with public art. You can see where the surfaces of sculptures are worn by their touch. Other times there are accidental interactions. These interactions cannot be controlled any more than the weather. No one wants to collide with a sculpture, but accidents happen. Nobody intends to have sculpture porn, other controversies, kleptomaniacs, vandals on ice or accidental interactions with cars and trucks. Be careful of what you wish for.