Public Art: Cities that are doing it right

Public Art: Cities that are doing it right

What can George Town pick up from successful and innovative public art projects from other parts of the world? Here are three projects we can learn from.

By William Tham

What should “art” mean to the public? According to local street artist Bibichun, it needs to leave an impact. A good piece of art evokes emotions and raises questions. Penang’s public art can be quite conservative and there’s room for more innovation to better reflect the identity and history of the people who occupy its spaces.

To achieve that, Penang should look into enacting policies to support the creation of meaningful artwork. It has many options to grow in creative and exciting ways and there is no lack of inspiration out there. In this article, we search for answers by looking at three different cities that grapple with complicated yet relatable issues.

Ace House Collective, Yogyakarta

Despite being the seat of Javanese tradition and the stately palace of Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, Yogyakarta is a contemporary artists’ paradise. A low-level explosion of colours permeates the city as artists make innovative and experimental public art. There is some government support and notably less regulatory bodies supervising this. The resulting “artistic chaos”, in Bibichun’s words, is tolerated by artists, business owners, and the locals.

One notable group is the Ace House Collective, a self-described “arts laboratory” created in 2011. United by shared ideas about youth pop culture, the collective embraces multiple forms of art. Without being able to rely on government support, they have created a market and an innovative business model which allows them both artistic freedom and the ability to earn a living.

One recent programme, Friday I’m In Talk: After All These Year(s), was a public retrospective and reunion for the “bombers” who decorated the city with graffiti in the early 2000s. Complete with a moderated discussion, the programme aimed to look at “archives and artefacts”, exploring the social significance of graffiti art in Yogyarkarta. Through this and other projects, the Collective hopes to change the public’s perception of graffiti and build a vibrant artistic community of its own.

20,000 artists work in Berlin, a UNESCO City of Design and the location of three World Heritage Sites. The city’s dynamic nature was forged by the tumult of the 20th century. Berlin has suffered wars, violence and partitions before eventually healing. Art has been an effective way to discuss the tragedies of the past while working towards healing and reconciliation. Therefore, the state, the private sector, and members of the public have a strong shared interest.

The most well-known example is the state-protected East Side Gallery, spanning 1,300 metres of the former Berlin Wall. Artists flocked to the wall to paint a series of murals in 1990, inspired by the unification of East and West Germany. The murals are fiercely tended to by a collective of artists, who have maintained the world’s largest open-air gallery for the thirty years of its existence. It is a reminder of a violent past but also a call for hope. James Howard Kunstler has previously written that Berlin is a city trying to be normal again. The Gallery is a potent example of this return to normalcy. It is a public space that makes peace with the past and offers hope for the future.

Cité Memoiré, Montreal

A procession of funeral-goers march across a brick wall by night. Cunning beavers plot rebellion near the City Hall. The strains of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne accompany a tableau vivant of moving images. These are just some of the scenes projected on to the walls of Montreal’s old city. They are part of the Cité Memoiré project, created by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon of Cirque de Soleil.

The city of Montreal’s current Cultural Development Policy calls for an examination of citizenship and identity in response to the digital age. This is a large challenge. The city has a volatile French, English and Indigenous heritage, and tensions have often exploded over the city’s 375 years of history. Montreal’s multicultural nature has often been a cultural and political flashpoint.

Lemieux and Pilon’s project encourages its audience to view the city’s past with empathy. The result is that viewers feel a strong sense of pride in being a Montrealer, regardless of their ethnic background. And the sensation of interacting with those images, sometimes locking eyes with characters out of the past is magical. As Pilon remarks, “History was made by people who look like me.”

Cover image: “East Side Gallery” by melissa.delzio is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

William Tham has been published by Buku Fixi, Looseleaf, Calibre and more. His new novel, The Last Days, will be published by Clarity in 2020.