Arts Wars


May 31, 2012

Perth’s public art is in serious need of improvement says University of Western Australia arts professor Richard Read.

“There are absolutely shocking examples of public art that just show either no taste or no imagination or no sense that the art might be anything other than to be avoided,” said Professor Read of UWA’s School of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts.

“Some of it is offensive, not in the sense of being challenging but in the sense of being tacky and so lacking in any visual sense.”

Professor Read said that since WA was easily the richest Australian state, it could afford to use its imagination a little more.

“I get really rather oppressed by [sculptures of] kangaroos bouncing along with briefcases,” he said.

“It’s kind of tedious.

“We know that Australia has kangaroos, we know that they’re from the bush and that they look odd in the city.

“I think we can do a bit better than that really.”

Perth’s public art has tended towards being inoffensive and conservative, Professor Read said, whereas some of history’s greatest public art has challenged the public’s taste.

“Michaelangelo’s David was pelted with stones on its way to its location because it was seen as an affront to one of the ruling parties at the time,” he said.

“So some of the most traditional, most highly appreciated works of art were once very controversial.”

Professor Read said more public education was needed in Perth.

“I think that Perth ought to be extremely conscious that it is lagging behind certainly Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide in its taste, in its courage, in its quality of art,” he said.

“Perth needs to catch up.”

But Professor Read said Perth had benefited from events like Sculpture by the Sea, which encouraged interaction with public art.

“I very much like the accessibility of Sculpture by the Sea as far as children are concerned,” he said.

“There’s nothing better than seeing children really engage with works of art that have caught their imagination.

“Instead of standing remotely away from it in a cold square, it’s kind of part of a playground for them, and you can see them picking up on it in ways that the adults don’t.”

Perth City Council’s Arts and Cultural Development Coordinator Paola Anselmi said recent public art had much to offer, especially through the trend toward temporary rather than permanent installations.

Ms Anselmi said artists and councils were coming to terms with the fact that temporary art could be more affordable than permanent art, while still having benefits for communities.

“There definitely is a place for permanency, but you need to consider budget, approvals, and all sorts of things, and sometimes it’s a much better resolve to spend a smaller amount of money on things that don’t necessarily last,” she said.

“You might as well spread the love amongst a number of artists and get them to engage.”

Ms Anselmi was one of the people behind the council’s annual TRANSART event, which placed new temporary public art on display in the city.

TRANSART artists had the freedom to place their work anywhere in the CBD, preferably in a place where it would be seen by as many people as possible.

“It has to engage with the public and it needs to create a sense of surprise and ‘what the hell is that?’,” Ms Anselmi said.

“We want people to kind of fall over it, to a certain extent.”

Ms Anselmi said there were many factors to a great piece of public art, but engaging with its location was critical.

“[Great public art] makes a place,” she said.

“It gives people ownership to a place.

“They enjoy being near it.

“They enjoy talking about it.”

Ms Anselmi said public art could also educate.

“I think it’s important to surprise people that wouldn’t otherwise be surprised, people who wouldn’t normally access art or a creative endeavour who just happen to be walking down the street, or to horrify people if they see something and go ‘You’ve got to be kidding’,” she said.

Arts Consultant Nichola Zed from Artsource said a surge in new developments funded by the mining boom had created spaces ideal for temporary public art.

“A lot more spaces have been opened and people are interested in putting art in there,” Ms Zed said.

“Pop-up art places are coming up a lot, and that’s something that [Artsource] is getting a hell of a lot of enquiries about.”

She said the demand for public art had seen local artists come to the fore.

“I’ve just recently put a new studio in Carillion Arcade in the centre of town with a young artist,” she said.

Ms Zed said the artist had been there only a week before he got his first commission.

“It’s very exciting,” she said.

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