Fist in a landscape

The need for privacy in looking at public art

The square in front of the building where I work is being completely rebuilt. The one random sculpture gracing it is now sticking out, a sore thumb in the sea of broken up slabs of concrete, mud and ground. So I finally took a closer look, approximately five seconds longer than usual. Promptly I walked away, feeling weird for eyeing it up.

Public art holds communal consciousness together but is at the same time as temporary in your mind as a billboard on a highway. Looking with dedication at something that clearly invites looking, while you are being looked at by others, it's like having an intimate conversation in public that you didn't ask for. Maybe something akin to a prying out open on what doesn't work in the relationship with someone on a late night bus home, but now the person sitting behind you has to listen. 

This does not happen in a gallery or a museum because we (generally) go there with a purpose and are shielded together in our looking. Out in the open, we are visible as lookers and our intent, emotional response, and actions we take towards the art are visible too. Maybe it's just me but with public art I tend to feel a gawker and a blatant visitor, unless we are alone together. Maybe I just prefer some privacy in this act of looking. 

Few years back I was on a trip to document war memorials. After a whole day of navigating scarce bus and train connections I would get into a tiny village or a small town, very evidently a tourist. Locals didn't care much for these memorials, they were loaded with political meaning of a bygone regime, and put up to commemorate war and genocide. Usually there was someone nearby, an old man slowly smoking or sipping a beer on a bench, staring my way. It was difficult not to feel like I was leeching of a history that wasn't mine in those moments. I wanted to put my hands up and say, I'm here because I want to understand (I understand the obnoxiousness of this). But, both of us, me and the artwork were exposed in that act. I wanted that pocket of peace in which we could talk, in private, just me and the memorial. 

I don't feel like this when I am alone with public art, or at least when no one is looking at me looking. It's pleasant to be shielded by trees in a park, or a bunch of buildings, and just face it, alone. In Jupiter Artland, the massive sculpture park outside of Edinburgh, this experience is presented to you on a silver platter. The sculptures and art installations are dotted around meadows and paths in a forest surrounding the historic Bonnington House. There it's significantly easier to be only accompanied by the wind. One can relax a little but what that means is that you will come out wrung out of emotions, melancholic, if a little hopeless. I had the same experience with the war memorials that were in more remote locations and there was no one besides me. 

There's always something brutal about facing a man made thing in nature and being the only contender to it. In this setting, it can easily seem as if public art can whisper secrets of existence to you.