Located within the Royal Academy of Arts’ new Burlighton Gardens gallery, were a series of structurally imposing installations by artist, Phyllida Barlow. Her exhibition, Cul-de-sac, ‘...challenges the ideas of monumentality and authority associated with...sculpture’ (Phyllida Barlow, 2019).
Within each of her pieces the manufacturing methods are visible, with joints and seams revealing her process. This, along with the use of inexpensive materials such as polystyrene, conveys a sense of impermanence. Some I found to be quite precarious, as the top heavy sculptures appeared to be balancing in temporary states, as if waiting to be secured. Perhaps this instability is a reference to our current political climate and nations sense of identity. The artist may have used every day disposable objects within her work to represent our transient status. Both plaster and plywood would be considered throwaway, in comparison to traditional sculpture materials, such as bronze or marble. This exploration of materials beyond the traditional is a huge facet of the 1960’s artistic movement, Arte Povera, meaning poor art. The movement ‘...aimed to challenge and disrupt the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system’ (Tate, n.d: online), by freeing artists from the restraints of traditional practice. This caused me to consider how using alternative material application can transform design, and in turn society. For example, the first architects to combine sheet glass with structural steel, in the construction of skyscrapers, introduced a new building typology which evolved city life (Miodownik, 2013).
For Barlow, the space is her protagonist, she creates work to inhabit it and must therefore respond to volumetric limitations. I found this (and the £12 entry fee) to be conflicting with the idea of disrupting the gallery system. This is something which I associate more with street art, and its ability to be free from commodification. Street art is an intervention of public space which can be used, as Banksy does, to illuminate current and controversial issues. It forces the public to form an opinion and become aware of the world around them. I believe that Barlow’s imposing forms have the power to consciously intervene rather than just inhabit. I would therefore argue that her work would be more impactful as public art, where questions of political stability and the consumption of materials would be raised by the masses.
On the other hand, Lacy (1993) suggests that ‘modernist assumptions about art’s necessary disengagement from “the masses”’ are ever present. She argues that public art is only considered acceptable to critics, if there is no chance it will bring about social change. Historically, public art, in the form of statues and sculptures, was used to rejuvenate cities laden with social issues, not highlight them. Many, including artist Jo Hanson, believe that these works would have been “better defined as private indulgence”, as they ‘...related more to art history than to city or culture’. This was also the case in New Towns such as Harlow, where sculptures were purchased to ‘decorate’, and represent how people were meant to live in the new suburbia. The only debate which could arise from such pieces would be focused ‘on artistic style, rather than public values’ (Lacy, 1993:22). Today however, it is not just graffiti artists using the street as a canvas for engagement. Lacy uses the term “new genre public art” to describe works which use ‘both traditional and nontraditional media, to communicate and interact with a broad and diverse audience, about issues directly relevant to their lives’. This artistic exploration of alternative form and content is not dissimilar to Arte Povera, which Barlow has gravitated towards in her later career. It too is attacking boundaries of what art is, and who it is for.
Another designer whose focus is to encourage a more open form of engagement with ‘the masses’, is Sir David Adjaye. He explores how including narratives in monuments can provide an experience of time and place, making them accessible to everyone. His seven projects on display at London’s Design Museum, highlight how the way we experience monuments has evolved from static sculptures. His intricate and energetic spaces offer a variety of functions, making them a place of return. I believe this to be an important attribute for a monument or memorial, which serves to mark society’s triumphs and failures. The Gwangju River Reading Room for example does not exist as a representation of lives lost, as traditional memorials can. Instead it is a device, for the community to keep memories alive, of those who were massacred during Gwangju’s pro-democracy uprising. It acts as a place of public memory which can prompt strong emotional responses, but is also a functional space for the exchange of human rights books and ideas. Adjaye’s approach ‘shifts the role of [the monument] from the passive realm of aesthetics or mere critique, to one of action and activism’ (O’Neill, 2014:online). Transforming spectators into activated users is also the goal of artist Tania Bruguera, who promotes the creation of artworks which are useful and beneficial to society. During her project, Immigrant Movement International, she integrated herself with social services and elected officials to highlight conditions facing immigrants. Similarly, John Latham and the APG* used his position within the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, to preserve ‘bings’ (heaps of red shale waste) as monument to the area’s post-industrial heritage. This has taught me the power that design can have when engaged with politics, economics and social issues. Its ability to shape our perception of events is what I found most successful about David Adjaye’s work. His architectural monuments all offer a reflection on history through the recording of human lives.