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What is public art?

It’s been a couple of weeks into my search for art outside the walls of a gallery and I had…

By Yvonne Robertson , in Thinking Outside the Gallery: Alternative art in Vancouver , on March 23, 2010 Tags: , , , ,

It’s been a couple of weeks into my search for art outside the walls of a gallery and I had yet to look at the city-funded public art pieces. So I decided to explore the art of the .

This non-profit corporation launches a biannual outdoor art exhibition, inviting artists from around the world to participate. The art pieces include sculptures and performance art.

Each exhibit has a separate theme. The current one is “in-TRANSIT-ion”, featuring art along bike and public transportation routes. This reflects movement and a mobile society.

When , I realized that these elicit conversation between the passers-by. Whether between friends or perfect strangers, the pieces become cornucopias for multiple dialogues and interpretations.

We by Jaume Plensa sits on top of a hill in Sunset Beach Park.

One of the more popular sculptures is Spanish artist, Jaume Plensa’s We , which sits in Sunset Beach Park along the bike route. Multiple alphabets merge to form an abstracted, seated figure. The sculpture symbolizes Vancouver’s diversity. People interact with the work, walking inside the sculpture or climbing on top of it.

seems to be art for the people of the city rather than tourists. It transforms the landscape and reflects the city’s values. However, as it largely depends on city funding, I wondered whose values were actually being pushed and how free the artists were to express themselves. It seems like here artists fall into the same situation as with art galleries where they are somewhat limited to the visions of the commissioner.

There has been much debate about the in the city. Should it merely decorate city streets or should it provide a unique commentary and insight into the culture of the city?

I instinctively began to compare the city-funded public art with the city-condemned street art. Public art is aesthetically pleasing, adding value to the city. But is street art necessarily the opposite?

A detail of Plensa's sculpture, showing the many alphabets.

, a Vancouver street artist, once told me that city-commissioned pieces are too restricting for the artist. So who decides what is art and why does there have to be one official vision?

From my experiences of viewing the sculptures of the Vancouver Biennale, I found that public art provides a public forum. It creates a place for open discussion about art. This type of engagement between random passers-by is missing from art galleries. I think this conversation can only be enhanced by allowing the expression of all types of art.