Public art needs support of public

By Lu Ching-fu 呂清夫  / 

Thu, Sep 12, 2019 - Page 8

Changhua Mayor Lin Shih-hsien (林世賢) last week said that a lotus flower sculpture on a roundabout at the intersection of Jhonghua and Heping roads — popularly known as “Sanjiao Park” (三角公園) — should be removed, as residents call it “the ugliest public art installation in history,” the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) reported.

While the epithet might be a bit of an exaggeration, the news does imply that the mayor is resolute. The question is whether he can actually order its removal.

Twelve years ago, the city spent NT$5 million (US$160,000 at the current exchange rate) on the 10m installation, but because it is not a piece of equipment, it cannot be summarily removed.

It would probably have been cheaper if an advertising company had been asked to make it, but it is “public art,” and as we all know, art is priceless.

Regardless of whether the funds came from the balance of the roundabout’s construction budget or only amounted to 1 percent of the total construction cost, it had to be reviewed by a review committee. If it is to be torn down, it will once again have to be decided by the committee.

If art really is priceless, tearing it down should not be allowed. On the other hand, if it is a good piece of art, its value normally increases with time.

Ten years ago, Pingtung Agricultural Biotechnology Park spent NT$12 million on a pumpkin-shaped installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and since then the piece’s value has increased to more than NT$100 million.

Public art involves public participation, which makes gauging the public’s reaction possible.

After the lotus flower was completed, 80 percent of people were reportedly opposed to it, saying it was “too ugly.”

In addition, since there is a pool with fountains around the base, water splashes onto the road, making it wet and posing a danger to scooter riders and public safety.

According to a Liberty Times report 10 years ago, then-Changhua mayor Wen Kuo-ming (溫國銘) said that the number of accidents at the intersection had been greatly reduced, and that it was up each person to decide whether the installation was pretty. Wen also expressed a hope that the public would not generalize based on their personal opinions.

Is it possible to avoid generalizations? If public participation is handled properly, it should be.

At the moment, public participation usually only involves measurements. Public opinion polls are often one of the most important parts of this process and might be conducted only after review and construction has finished.

Conducting a poll during the review stage would mean a cautious start, while doing it after construction is completed is beneficial when discussing whether a project has been followed through to the end.

A standardized procedure is also required. The US excels at this process and usually announces poll results to the public.

The Ministry of Culture should have conducted an inventory of public art installations instead of establishing the Public Art Awards. Still, an inventory is not only about counting — reviewing the success or failure of installations is even more important.

An artwork must not be ignored once it has been installed. This is the only way to determine which installations should be awarded and which reviewed.

To gain public trust, an opinion poll should be conducted on the lotus flower installation to acquire actual data. Only then could there be any basis for saying that it is the ugliest piece of public art in history.

To obtain art that is both sublime and caters to the tastes of the general public requires listening to both sides of the argument, so two opinion polls should be conducted: one aimed at the public, the other at experts.

Artwork in fine art museums should be sublime, while public art should cater to the public.

The ministry could take the lead and create a questionnaire for use throughout the nation.

When conducting workshops for local governments, this questionnaire could be used as part of the teaching materials so that the one thing participants remember is not that they can hire consultants to do all the work for them.

Workshops for review committees are also needed, as not everyone necessarily understands that public art is intended to bring about reform. During workshops, the ministry’s vision and approach could be explained in detail, just as a member on a university evaluation committee must be given an explanation and receive a certificate before they are allowed to take up their position.

In the 21 years since public art installations were introduced in Taiwan in 1998, 4,200 pieces have been installed at a cost of NT$7.5 billion.

If no inventory is made of these installations, we will not know how far we have gotten from “ugly.” That is not the way to treat the taxpayers who have paid for this art with their hard work.

Lu Ching-fu is a professor in Fu Jen Catholic University’s applied arts department.

Translated by Perry Svensson