This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 15, October 2013. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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If these walls could talk they’d tell just part of the story. Their steel and concrete forms chronicle movement and debate. Their perpendicular shadows silence spite and division. Layers of paint wipe away decades of graffiti. They mask the scars of movement; of the night they were ferried off by a dentist, of the years they spent maligned in an obscure park, of the day someone moved them here to where I stand, outside Southbank’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. These are the walls of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault, one of Melbourne’s most controversial pieces of public art.

Almost anyone in Melbourne at the time will remember the furore Vault provoked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From the moment its design was first revealed at a city council meeting, Vault sparked a debate that still haunts those heavy yellow walls. A major sculpture was always intended for Denton Corker Marshall’s redesign of Melbourne’s City Square and there was a diligent selection process. Research was conducted, experts and councillors were consulted, a number of artists had been selected and a competition was held. Through this process Vault was selected as Melbourne’s first major installation of contemporary public art.

As a large, bright yellow, abstract minimalist sculpture, Vault heralded a new kind of public art. It sat in sharp aesthetic and conceptual contrast to the traditions of heroic and commemorative statues. Some loved it, others loathed it. It aroused debate around the purpose of public art; what it is, who should pay for it, who should choose it and whether all of the public should like all of the public art.

I arrived at art school in the later days of these debates. I still remember the spiteful way some in art circles spoke of public art. They thought that most public art was bound to failure by the bureaucratic systems that sustained it. Public art, they felt, was largely commissioned under caution and prescription; it was hobbled by politics, agendas and a naive public. These critics said art should be bold and unfettered. Yet what they admired most was the art neatly framed in the walls of a gallery.

Now there are some walls that can talk: those white gallery cubes. They say, ‘This is art.’ They say, ‘Look at this as art.’ Were it not for these didactic walls we could be confused about where the art is. Take Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, Carl Andres’ 1966 Equivalent VII, Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize winning installation Work No. 227, The Lights Going On and Off. In the public space these are simply a urinal, a pile of bricks and an electrical malfunction. The gallery demands a certain frame of mind, an intellectual intent, a conceptual openness. In the gallery, there’s an agreement between the artist and the viewer. Public art, on the other hand, works in an entirely different space.

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As Melbourne artist Simon Perry says, public art is competitive. ‘There are lots of other things going on and making public art is restrictive because of materials and environmental conditions.’ Perry made Melbourne’s popular Public Purse, a giant red-granite and stainless steel purse installed in Bourke Street Mall in 1994. Observe those around Public Purse for even a few minutes and you’re likely to see imaginations set loose. Children play on it and tourists take photos with it, many use it per its original commission – as public seating. And every now and again, someone steps out of the river of foot traffic to deliberately go around it, smiling at it – as if it smiled at them. Good public art snaps us out of the everyday. It releases conceptual butterflies in our grey matter. It sets them flapping waywardly about our minds. But, sometimes, public art sets off a flap of a different sort.

‘What is art and what is artistic expression is not the issue before us today. The issue is, what is the governmental responsibility in arriving at a decision to place art that is paid for with public funds in a public plaza or other public place.’ These words are from Chief Judge Edward D Re of New York City as he stands behind a lectern in faded colour footage of a 1986 public hearing. The hearing was to decide the fate of Richard Serra’s 1981 public art installation Tilted Arc. Re’s words echo many others about public art. Our own Vault, as Geoffrey J Wallis recounts in his book Peril in the Square: The Sculpture that Challenged a City, was subject to countless comments in the media, from the public and in government. Through these, Vault became more commonly known as ‘The Yellow Peril’, a name dubbed by one of its early opponents, Melbourne City Councilor Don Osborne.

John Denton was one of the architects behind Melbourne’s City Square project. He saw the vitriol and support unfold in cartoons, articles, council meetings and public debate. The furore ultimately prompted the removal of Vault (within a year of its installation). Those who despised it claimed victory. But Denton argues that as far as public art goes Vault should be seen as a success. ‘Public art can raise questions and confront. [Vault] made everybody think. It made everybody take sides.’

serra_3bSides were also taken in New York’s almost parallel debate about Serra’s Tilted Arc. The Arc was a 120-foot long length of curved steel that stood 12-feet high. It stretched across the centre of a large plaza outside the Federal Building. To its opponents Tilted Arc was a preposterous work; visually intimidating, a giant form that forced pedestrian detours around the piece. At the hearing opponent Ted Weiss said, ‘The sculpture cuts a huge swath across the center of the plaza, dividing it in two and acting as a barrier to the building’s main doorways.’ The hearing decided on the removal of Tilted Arc. But unlike our own Vault (which contractor and dentist Maurice White removed and eventually reconstructed in Batman Park), Tilted Arc was never seen again. Such is the life of public art pioneers.

I’m not sure I’d have relished the spectre of a 12-foot high, 120-foot long steel wall in my local plaza. But the story of Tilted Arc is fascinating, because when you break it down, both its maker and its opponents were in agreement about the effect it had. In a 2011 interview with Gary Garrels, Serra tells a story about his childhood that illustrates his intentions with Tilted Arc. He says he noticed at the age of seven or eight that there was a difference between the way the beach looked when he went in one direction and when he went in the other. ‘There are things where, if something’s on your right and something’s on your left, and you turn around and walk back the other way, it’s a completely different experience,’ he said. That’s why Serra makes curves like Tilted Arc. If you stand at one end and take a step to the inside you can see the whole curve. Take a step to the outside and, ‘you’re groping along to find out what the volume’s like.’

Tilted Arc radically changed the way those in the plaza negotiated their space. While its removal would have been disappointing for Serra, he did (albeit briefly) set the butterflies off – even if to some they looked like moths. To me, that sudden spatial awareness that Serra describes is at the heart of good public art – be the art ephemeral or material. Whether you like it or not, public art surprises you. It makes you aware of where you are at a particular moment in time and it maps memories into that space. An encounter with public art is an exercise in being.

‘The relationship to looking and touching in the brain is very close. When you see certain kinds of things, certain forms, certain materials, they set off all of these embodied memories,’ says Perry. ‘I’m interested in the relationship between the material world that we inhabit, our own bodies and things like artefacts or things like spaces or architectural surfaces.’ Because of this he considers the materiality of his work: how it feels to touch, what its form is, and how it’s approached. ‘The Purse is like something that’s dropped. It’s like an artefact. It’s also quite a sensual form. There are aspects of desire in the experience.’

sq_1998_RolledPathAs Perry speaks I’m taken back to my first bike ride along a section of the Merri Creek. I turned a corner and saw a patch of grass offering two paths to take. One clearly continued along the creek, the other made two brief turns then ended at a circular roll of concrete jammed tight against a large bluestone. I could see the whole plateau before I chose my path, yet I still took the one I knew would end. At the concrete roll I halted, willing the path to unfurl before me, knowing it never could. At the time I didn’t know it was a piece by Perry. My encounter with Rolled Path (1999) was just moments long, but it did engage me, body and mind. It surprised me and somehow recalibrated my brain to a more playful state. I rode away giggling, my head swarming with new perceptions.

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It’s impossible to separate public art, architecture and the city. They can be entwined on a bureaucratic scale (when local governments demand a ‘percentage for art’ in development projects), and as architectural trends move beyond the cold sheet glass and steel surfaces spawned by modernism, lines between public art and architecture are blurring. ‘There’s always been this conflict, I suppose,’ Denton says. ‘There were times past where architects got sculptors to do things that were built into their architecture.’ In older buildings for example, a piece of sculpture would get built into a brick wall or installed in a space. ‘At that time architecture was about an introverted view of what buildings were. In other words you got a block of land and you did a building on it,’ Denton says, drawing a square with his hands. ‘Architects now accept that the urban context and urban design is an important part of what you do with a building, and how the building relates to other buildings, how it defers to them, how it contrasts with them, how it does all these sort of things.’ Even architects like Denton Corker Marshall are making public art. They designed Melbourne Gateway, which includes a series of red poles and a large yellow one tilting over Melbourne’s CityLink tollway. Despite the boundaries it pushes in terms of who created it (an architect rather than an artist), Melbourne Gateway certainly engages the public (just ask any taxi driver).

Over the years both artists and architects have been accused of putting art into public places inconsiderately. But as Perry argues, even a piece that seems not to consider its environs still has an effect. Its detractors may call it ‘plop art’, but Perry says, ‘That’s a facile understanding of how you can change a place by putting something in it or how that place can change something.’ While gallery art may be restricted to a dialogue in the context of its white walls, public art, says Perry, is part of a greater whole.

‘You’ve got this thing called public art and you’ve got this thing called the city, or architecture, or space and we seem to think they’re somehow separate. When I think of the city I think of walking through the city and having a series of experiences and they become part of your internal world.’ It’s in this play between the internal and the external that effective public art sits.

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Perhaps the best public art, whether it’s an artefact or something more ephemeral, makes you aware that you are a part of the world around you. It puts you into a dialogue. ‘One of the things that I’m drawn to in public work is work that engages the body, that engages you. It’s completed by the encounter. All the things I’ve made are very much about that. They don’t mean anything on their own. Meaning is constructed in relationship to things in the world, and to you as a thinking, embodied person. I’m interested in play with an audience,’ Perry says.

If the walls of Vault could speak, they’d tell only part of the story. The rest of the story is up to you. For me it’s in the things I didn’t notice before; the hum of a nearby air-conditioner, the feeling of gravel crunching beneath my boots, the way these walls seems to open and close depending on my location and perspective. It’s in the blue sky I can see through Vault’s open roof. I am, as Perry would say, ‘enveloped in the world.’

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