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Public Art

Public art refers to art designed for and exhibited in public areas, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. Traditional expressions of public art include civic statues, memorials, and monuments. However, recently the scope of this genre extends beyond to encompass transitory mediums such as performances, dialogues, graffiti, installations or interventions.

The role and objective of a public artwork fluctuate based on the specific context and time period. For instance, it has roots in ancient Greece and Rome, where sculptures were utilized as communication tools between the state and its people. During Caesar Augustus’ reign (27 BC -14 AD) in the Roman Empire, his statues were produced en masse to be strategically placed in different areas. Functioning as propaganda, they showcased Caesar's eloquence and divine attributes as a Roman emperor to reinforce authority among the citizens.

In the present day, public art can be seen as a vehicle for beautification, bringing about a sense of delight and enrichment. A notable example of an outdoor installation that not only enhances its environment but also provides a distinctive visual encounter is Cloud Gate (2004) by British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor. Famously known as “The Bean,” this monumental artwork is integrated into the urban landscape of Chicago and acts as the city’s iconic symbol, encapsulating the essence of Millennium Park. Its polished stainless steel exterior mirrors the famous Chicago skyline and its surroundings. The reflective quality offers a captivating experience and encourages interaction as people touch the surface and observe their own reflections.

Anish Kapoor
Cloud Gate, 2004
Stainless steel
10 × 20 × 12.8 m (393.7 x 787.4 x 503.9 in.)
Millennium Park, Chicago, USA

Maya Lin
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982
National Mall, Washington D.C.
Photo: Terry Adams, Mark Segal, Victoria Sambunaris, Wendy Watriss

An iconic example of a national monument, American artist Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982) serves as a visual pillar for collective memory, all the while providing a sanctuary in which to grieve. Situated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the memorial consists of two 246 foot-long black granite walls that meet at a 125-degree angle, forming a V shape. Symbolizing a healing wound, the walls are cut into the landscape and chronologically feature the names of over 58,000 soldiers who died in the war. As visitors walk alongside this grand piece, they can see the names of their lost ones, as well as their own reflections on the polished surface, providing a contemplative and personal experience. Lin’s empathetically designed monument became more than just a tribute, acting as a healing space for visitors to collectively mourn, remember, and reflect.

A powerful aspect of public art is its capacity to easily spread positivity and brighten many lives. Often, projects are commissioned with a specific site in mind, and artists carefully consider how their work will influence and shape the audience experience. For example, It’s Okay to Be Alright (2013) by Australian visual artist Rose Nolan is an applied public artwork, meaning that it was directly executed on an exterior surface. The heartfelt words, “it’s okay to be alright,” envelop a Melbourne tram, offering encouragement as people go about their daily routines.

Rose Nolan
It’s Okay to Be Alright, Melbourne Art Trams, 2013
Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery
Photo: Adam Chandler

Related categories

Sculpture

Land Art

Transformation

Wall Installation/Sculpture

Stone

Outdoor Art

Commemoration / Mourning

Site-specific Installation

Performance

Communication

Daily Life Experience

Word as Image

Large Scale Installation/Sculpture

Mixed Media Sculpture

Street Art

Graffiti

Socio-political Issues

Surrounding Environment

Participatory Art

Monuments

Light Installation

Atypical Installation/Presentation

Praise for Nature

How to Define Contemporary Art

Art Fairs