Public art in the Olympic city

Public art in the Olympic city – Sydney, Australia

Susan Best

Sydney is experiencing a boom in public art programs:

Sydney Sculpture Walk, Sydney Airport’s Art at Work program, the Olympic Co-ordination Authority’s Public Art Program, and Sydney Foreshore Authority’s Promenart program. The strategy of having specially commissioned and curated programs of public art means that the art works not only relate to their sites but also to one another, This is extremely important for a number of reasons.

First, the programmatic approach can acquaint the public with new ways of thinking about public art. Most people are no doubt familiar with traditional forms of public art — statues on pedestals, the abstract sculptures of modernism, fountains and so forth — but more contemporary art forms such as site-specific art and installation may not be part of their experience. Having a series of such works helps to accustom the public to different ways of looking at and experiencing art. The first of these programs, Sydney Sculpture Walk, is exemplary in this regard: the walk itself creates a path around the city via a series of such works. Up to twenty artworks will make up the walk: fourteen by Sydney-based artists and around six from leading international artists. To date, eight works have been completed, with two more scheduled to be completed before September.

Many of the works in the Sculpture Walk engage with the history of their site; “site-specific” here doesn’t just refer to the present state of a site. For example, Anne Graham’s water work in Martin Place, Passage, traces the footprint of a Georgian domestic dwelling once on that site. At regular intervals walls of fine mist rise from the perimeter of the absent house to recreate a ghostly outline. Because the work is very low-rise — one can walk across the outline and between the two bowls that form a fountain at the wash-end of the house — it encourages passage through it. Consequently many people, to their surprise and delight, are caught inside the house when the misty walls rise. The obvious enjoyment and amusement caused by this sudden immersion in history, right in the heart of the erstwhile sober CBD, is testament to the beguiling nature of this experiential work.

The second advantage of the planned program is that it affords a degree of integrity to the works. Public art programs become a distinct feature of the city or site; they are not last minute additions to an existing building program — the much lamented “art as ornament” approach. Perhaps, when public art takes more traditional sculptural forms, this last minute approach can be countenanced; but, because many of the artists involved in these recent programs work with the space of installation itself, their work is most effective when it can enter into a dialogue with the surrounding space. The new public art programs developed in conjunction with the building projects at the Olympics site and Sydney Airport have been able to foster this dialogue.

Like the Sculpture Walk, the Airport’s Art at Work program has in the main opted for risky, cutting-edge contemporary artists over producers of safe or familiar works. The airport includes eight projects — ranging from an installation/environment Walama Forecourt, which occupies a large apron of land between the terminal and the carpark, by indigenous artists Brook Andrew and Judy Watson — to photographic works along the arrivals corridors by a diverse range of Australian photographers.

One of the most powerful works is Robyn Backen’s pair of Weeping Wails for the north and south departure gates. These translucent walls of glass encase a shimmering curtain of loose loops of light-emitting optical fibre. Situated directly in front of the departure gates, they divide the public space of the airport from the customs area that is only accessible to departing travellers. There is a rare synergy of art and architecture here: the Weeping Walls play a supporting architectural role by helping to demarcate space, while the airport in turn bends to accommodate the wistful sensibility of the artwork — the colour-scheme of the carpet and paint-work shifts to more sombre tones around the work, Airport and art join to signal the physical and emotional importance of this difficult liminal zone. Indeed, these soaring, shimmering forms punctuate the space of departure in a way that all airports should emulate. To carve out this quiet zone of leave-taking from the bustle and chaos of an extremely busy interna tional airport is a very considerable achievement.

If public art in an airport has to work with the noise and bustle of scores of simultaneous arrivals and departures, what kinds of opposing distractions will face public works on the site of the Olympics? The site will feature up to twelve public art works, but the deserted Olympic site looks so vast and desolate that it would seem well beyond the capacity of any public art program to actually humanise it, This said, the individual works are well integrated into their particular sites. For example, taking the two ends of Olympic Boulevard, Janet Laurence’s environmental work about water remediation at the southern terminus, in the Shadow, and An Pruhonen’s Osmosis, with a pointedly similar theme on the northern end under Haslams Pier, are subtle and welcome human-scaled intrusions into the overpowering site. One can only hope that after the Olympics these kinds of thoughtful and thought-provoking interventions into the city will continue.

RELATED ARTICLE: Opposite page Walama Forecourt by Judy Watson and Brook Andrew. Art at Work, Sydney Airport. Photographs Adrian Boddy. This page left Osmosis, under Haslams Pier by Ari Purhonen. OCA Public Art Program, Right Haslam’s Pier by Hargreaves and Associates. Photograph John Gollings.

Opposite page Weeping Walls by Robyn Backen. Art at Work, Sydney Airport. Photograph Adrian Boddy. This page above In the Shadow, Southern Boulevard Terminus by Janet Laurence. OCA Public Art Program. Above left In the Shadow by Janet Laurence. Developed concept photomontage on a Patrick Bingham-Hall photograph, courtesy of the OCA. Top right Veil of Trees by Janet Laurence and Jisuk Han. Sydney Sculpture Walk. Photograph S. Couacaud. Bottom right Passage by Anne Graham. Sydney Sculpture Walk. Photograph Brett Boardman.

Above Flight Research No. 5 by Rosemary Laing. Art at work, Sydney Airport. Opposite page left Tankstream — Into the Head of the cove by Lynne Roberts-Goodwin. Sydney Sculpture walk. Photograph Lynne Roberts-Goodwin. Right top to bottom Relay, Fig Grove by Paul Carter and Ruark Lewis, detail featuring Loretta Dorman’s handwriting. OCA Public Art Program. Photograph Babette Griep, courtesy of the OCA Authority; Psychotourism by Patricia Piccinini. Art at Work, Sydney Airport; Detail of Wingara Bridge by Lindsay and Kerry Clare. Art at Work, Sydney Airport.

Dr Susan Best is a lecturer in architecture at the University of Technology Sydney Her essay “Site-specificity and Non-place: Sydney Airport’s Art at Work Program” will be published in Art and Australia in March 2001.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Architecture Media

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group