Forum at West Bund Art & Design explores meaning of 'Public Art'

Wang Jie
"Public Art as Social Engagement" is one of a series of "Art Waterfront International Forums" recently held at ORBIT of West Bund Art & Design.
Wang Jie
Forum at West Bund Art & Design explores meaning of 'Public Art'

Art experts discuss the topic during the forum.

In the eyes of many, public art equals the still urban sculptures scattered around the city.

However, "Public Art as Social Engagement," one of a series of the "Art Waterfront International Forums" held at ORBIT of West Bund Art & Design, gives a different answer.

ORBIT, a pioneering landmark building designed by world renowned architect Thomas Heatherwick, actually is the first public art building in the West Bank Financial City and the venue for the Art Waterfront International Forum.

The Art on the Waterfront International Forum brings together world-renowned public art experts, including urban planning architects, art museum directors, curators, art collectors, and developers, to share their views of the positive influence of public art on community and cities.

"Today's public art may take place in every intangible spaces, and even could be placed on your mobile phone," said Pi Li, head of Art at Tai Kwun Contemporary and former head of Curatorial Affairs of M+ Museum. "Those AI or big data stuff could bring possibilities."

Pi gave 10 key words involved with public art – public, art museum, educational, fetishism, immersive, understanding, laboratory, neutral, co-learning, and public awareness.

Among these words, fetishism sounds strange until Pi gives his explanation.

"In particular, today the contemporary art museums resemble churches, a kind of fetishism," he said. "Visitors may find too difficult to understand some contemporary art works displayed at art museums, which represent the artist's avant-garde behavior."

Lewis Biggs, chairman of the Institute for Public Art and former director of Tate Liverpool, also shared his interpretation of public art.

"The creation of any work of art is initiated by the artist and completed by the public, what we call public art is no different in this respect from artworks made for the homes of collectors or the rooms of museums. But it has less protection from misinterpretation than artworks that live their lives in the atmosphere of art."

When asked for his definition of public art, Hou Hanru, the world famous art critic and curator, former artistic director of MAXXI Roma, said: "This is too big a problem for anyone to define what is meant by public art. In my view, public art is relatively private art. Turning all private art into something translucent, or often unreadable to the public. The main purpose of talking about public art is to let all people face a possibility that they cannot understand, and this is what makes public art. With the problem of 'not being able to understand', public art really becomes public."

Hou cited the example of "La Nuit Blanche" that was first seen in Paris in 2001.

In a bid to promote contemporary art to the public, all Parisian art institutions opened for free to the public on the evening of the first Saturday in October, from 8pm to 8am.

"`La Nuit Blanche' in French means a night when you couldn't fall asleep. Then you would go out and wander around. At that time, you come across some art. However, such art still brings a lot of problems and makes us sleepless. This is the real meaning of `La Nuit Blanche.' It does not make you like art, but rather, you feel sleepless due to art," Hou said.

Forum at West Bund Art & Design explores meaning of 'Public Art'


The speakers attempted to broaden the stereotyped concept of public art. It could be a public performance, a sound installation, an evening event, or a collaboration between an architect and a designer for public art.

"An art museum is even a piece of public art, whether it's the building or the projects happening in it," Pi added.

His thoughts were echoed by Paul Freches, the Center Pompidou representative in China, and French executive representative for the West Bund Museum x Centre Pompidou Project.

"In 1977, we set up the Pompidou Centre," Freches said. "The original vision was to revitalize a rather run-down and dilapidated urban area. We wanted to reflect ongoing social changes in France at that time. We wanted to discuss the relationship and the balance between capital and workers. So the strategy was to build a very eye-catching and creative building. If you look at the building, it is part of the urban development plan. What is interesting is that half of the space is regularly used for exhibition, and the rest half could be used free to the public space."

Uli Sigg, a veteran collector and M+Board Member, said: "Another important role of the museum is to reflect a kind of public memory."

Sigg first came to China in 1979. He was one of the earliest Western collectors to buy contemporary artworks of Chinese artists at that time. In 2012, Sigg donated nearly 1,200 pieces of Chinese contemporary artworks to M+ in Hong Kong.

"Of course international institutions were very keen to get my collection," Sigg said. "Say, New York, but Chinese contemporary art is not their core business, they may give me a beautiful exhibition and then they all will be in storage. So China is the place for like an encyclopedic collection and there should be at least one. Like you go to Paris, but you can't find an impressionist collection or an impressionist painting. So I hope M+ can remedy that. And I would like to add one 11th word to Pi Li's list of 10, which is the function of the museum also as a public memory."

Forum at West Bund Art & Design explores meaning of 'Public Art'

The guests who participated in the forum.

"Creativity needs fluidity, it needs openness," said Lewis Bigg. "It needs what I call loose edges things that still need to be completed. So I would ask the developer not to over-design, to leave a little bit of open space, a little bit of latitude for new thinking and new ideas to come on. Because every year changes, every tomorrow we will think differently from today."

Xu Bo, associate director and head of legal China Property Hong Kong Land, agreed.

"We invited Thomas Heatherwick, one of the best architects to design ORBIT. Shaped in the vortex of the upstream, the building echoes the ambience of openness and inclusiveness of the city. We hope that in the future, architecture, public art, and people can be connected together, turning West Bank Financial City into a trendy place with an artistic and trendy venue on the city's art map."

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