Shelf life, Use by Date and Other Related Issues

Isn't it about time we showed artists and our public artworks a little more respect? We coaxed artists out of their studios to put their creative souls on public display, and now many of those life enhancing objects are looking unloved, forlorn and neglected.

Isn't it about time we showed artists and our public art works a little more respect? We coaxed the artists out of their studios to put their creative souls on public display, and now many of those life-enhancing objects are looking unloved, forlorn and neglected.

Somehow, after a decade or more of public art commissioning, we still haven't got it right. We have numerous publications and guide books on the whole process - the stages involved, the moral rights of the artist, and the responsibilities of the client. But the rumblings are growing louder as those who commission, and those who get commissioned, are beginning to wonder if it is all worthwhile. Public art needs regular care and maintenance like any other public asset, and like registered heritage buildings, their contexts need to be protected. This requires planning and the long-term commitment of funds. Planting a tree and some tasteful shrubbery is not necessarily a cheaper solution either. If the art work looks unloved, you can guarantee the surroundings look pretty much uncared for as well.

The major issue here is not the failure of art works to live up to expectations. Rather, it is the failure of commissioning bodies to think through and beyond the present and into the potential realities of the future. To give an example. I recently went with an artist to one of the new housing estates that are springing up and rapidly spreading over the coastal plains of Perth. In 1992 artist Stuart Green was commissioned to create entry statements for a Homeswest development. Homeswest is a government authority responsible for providing affordable housing. The site was a typically cleared grey sandy wasteland, that is, former sand dune and native coastal scrub country which would have had its own subtle beauty. However, because these qualities can't survive the slash and burn mentality of suburban developers, they have to be re-constructed via other means. The land is close to the Indian Ocean with its exquisite shades of limpid turquoise and white sandy beaches. The conceptual theme for the entry statements and eventually other art and design features, was naturally enough based on this coastal marine environment. Two sets of entry 'walls' were designed and constructed to evoke those elemental forces of nature that have a timeless rhythm. Rolling waves or tidal surges, the rhythmic pattern of a pod of dolphins breaking the surface. Or, looked at another way, the bleaching ribs of a beached whale. The pale blue tiled walls, linked together with shiny metal rods that catch the sun like shafts of light through breakers, create an abstract pattern that probably sat well with the starkness of the site, or would have sat well with a future landscaped setting that maintained the integrity of the artist's conception.

The reality. One set of walls has been demolished - they didn't suit the locality which developed there, and the other set (named "Quayside" although there is no quay in sight) seems to be fighting a losing battle. On one side a suburban villa is so close that it appears to be using the 'walls' as a protective street barrier, while the other is in danger of being swamped by large amounts of mulch and growing shrubs that are now altering its original scale. Above all, the prevailing new aesthetic of houses with 'olde worlde charm' set in cottage gardens and manicured lawns, are creating their own statements which defy the elemental nature of the art work and the essential nature of the very land they are sitting on.

At present, the walls are still in sound condition, although some repairs are needed. But what about the future? Have the walls reached their 'use-by date', no longer serving as relevant entry statements? Should they be regarded as part of the original advertising signage, that was removed once the 'concept' was sold. I admire Stuart for his honesty while talking about the 'death' of one of his first public art commissions. Now an experienced artist of such works, he is very much alive to the potential problems, and wonders if, after all, he should have anticipated this outcome.

Among the many issues which affect the shelf-life of public art, is of course maintenance. There are public art works all over Australia which are falling apart because the artists have either refused, or chose not to compromise their aesthetic ideals to the exigencies of the mediums they used. Or else, they had so little real experience of how certain materials stand up to the effects of the environment that they ended up compromising their art works. Unfortunately, some artists appear to be prejudiced about seeking advice from a materials conservator for fear their vision will be lost to pragmatics, but the alternative isn't too rewarding either. It would seem to make a lot of sense if a conservator was involved before any contract is written, as much to protect the artist as the commissioning agent. It could also be agreed between the parties what the life of the art work will reasonably be and have that established in the contract as well. After all, this is art contending with the elements, not in a climatically controlled gallery.

Some works are planned to be ephemeral. The City of Melville in Western Australia recently opened a bush and wetlands reserve, traditionally an Aboriginal women's place, that contains a number of temporary works. These were made by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women artists using local plants. The works are located within the bushland setting which is accessed by raised timber walkways. These art works will naturally disintegrate over time and may be replaced by others as part of an ongoing process.

The real issue however is about public art works that were intended to be permanent. Western Australia has established something of a sorry history of either removing or destroying its cultural artefacts. To a large extent this is directly related to the development of the central business district, the changing ownership of sites, new buildings replacing old, or the revamping of plazas in front of buildings. Two sets of Howard Taylor's sculptures have departed to university campuses; George Kosturkov's metal sphere titled Life (1983) once sited outside East Point Plaza was shifted to Murdoch University; Peter Gelencser's iron ore piece (1971) for Mt Newman House wasn't so lucky, it was chemically destroyed; while a Lyndon Dadswell wall sculpture, Wildflower State (1960) abandoned on the Commonwealth Bank building, was fortunately rescued just before Perth witnessed its first building implosion. Interestingly, these formal non-figurative abstract works have been replaced (but not in the same locations) by figurative sculptures.

There is a reluctance to 'kill' figurative statues, and maybe this is because such works acquire a degree of social value that makes them sacrosanct. For example there is a bronze statue of Captain Stirling (1979), poorly executed anatomically and technically, which perhaps should have been laid to rest after vandals had had a go at it. But the work represents the 150th anniversary of the founding of Perth, there are no other statues of Stirling, and Prince Charles unveiled it amidst much pomp and ceremony. It was removed from its site because the building behind it was being demolished, and the statue is being restored prior to relocation in what will become Perth's refurbished heritage precinct. Is this a lost opportunity to have something better (would we get something better?), or do memorials have special status?

Public art works/memorials such as Captain Stirling that have been commissioned as part of a celebration obviously pose particular problems when it comes to shelf-life. In 1979, another commemorative work was commissioned, Earth, Fire and Water by local sculptor Frank Wilkinson. The issues involved here are not uncommon. The work is an abstract representation of the three elements designed as a split pyramid faced with black diorite. A stainless steel shaft slices at an angle through the pyramid catching the sunlight. Metal pipes rise up through the centre which were designed to emit a fine spray of water. The whole sits in a large rectangular reflecting pool containing river stones and bordered with polished stone slabs. It is sited in the plaza outside the city's central railway station. The work was to be located further west along the plaza, but plans for an overhead bridge in the vicinity meant the fountain had to be closer towards the main railway entrance. Perth can be a windy city, and people soon objected to getting sprayed when the mid morning sea breeze came in (affectionately called the Fremantle Doctor because of the relief it brings). But this wasn't all. Apart from the litter which is always an issue with pools of water, no one realised the incredible evaporation rates. Apparently in high summer, with the fountain operating, the large pool could totally dry up in 24 hours if more water wasn't pumped in. Ongoing costs then became another factor against the fountain continuing to operate. The water was eventually turned off and the valves which needed to be kept moist in order to function have now dried up. The tiles are chipped, some of the embedded river stones were stolen revealing gaps in the sealant, vandals have been at work, and it all looks very sad. The sculptor by now has just about disowned the work as not being representative of his practice. But it is a significant work and one of the few remaining substantial public works left in the city. It was commissioned by the Mining Committee of the 150th Anniversary Board to be a symbol of the state's growth and development, and it was unveiled by the governor, Sir Wallace Kyle. There are now plans to revamp the plaza and the future of the sculpture could well be in the balance.

Although the above examples are local to Western Australia, they illustrate situations relating to shelf-life that are relevant wherever there is outdoor public art. I have talked to a number of people directly involved with these problems such as Janet Hughes from the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. As a materials conservator, and one who has worked with the nation's outdoor collection, Janet has been actively involved in trying to educate the public about how to conserve and maintain outdoor art works. This includes considering the best choice of materials, environmental factors, and the need for regular maintenance checks.

However in the long run, it tends to be the cultural factors which come into play - public perceptions and changing aesthetic values - that can tip the balance about whether the life-support system is going to be turned off. But whatever the decision, it would be polite to tell the next of kin.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.