Gentle Disturbances

Creating ripples in public space with large-scale art

Gentle Disturbances
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you go strolling up the Avenue one fine day and find the Texas State Capitol completely covered in yellow fabric. I mean, completely covered, from the cornerstone up to the Goddess of Liberty's star, every square inch of pink granite – House chamber, Senate chamber, dome, all of it – obscured by a million square feet of polypropylene fabric the shade of a yellow rose (and tied down with 50,000 feet of cobalt blue rope). Three weeks our capitol looks like this, and then it doesn't. The statehouse-sized Christmas present is unwrapped, the wrapping taken away, and the building looks like it has every time the Lege has come to town since the thing was built.

What, you might be asking yourself, was the point of that? Why wrap a building in the first place? And if you're going to go to all that trouble of covering it up, expend all those resources, why uncover it after less than a month? Why go so far out of your way to create something so monumental and yet so ephemeral? Is there a point?

Valid questions all, and there may be no better time to find some answers in our town than now. More attention is being paid here to large-scale, temporary public art – and let's get it out of the way straight off, this kind of work is art – than any time in the last 25 years. From upstart nonprofits, such as Austin Green Art, to academic programs like Land Arts of the American West in UT's Department of Art & Art History, from under-the-radar shows by younger artists, such as Heather Johnson's "Cracks in the Pavement," to major exhibitions at the Austin Museum of Art, the city is full of artists thinking about, talking about, and making art that's big, that's transforming our public spaces, and that's here today, gone tomorrow. In fact, this week, AMOA is bringing to town Christo and Jeanne-Claude, if not the grandpére and grandmére of monumental, ephemeral public art, then surely its most recognized and vocal proponents in the world today. They should be pleased to know that the work they've been engaged in for 45 years running is active here, creating "gentle disturbances," to borrow Christo's phrase, across the face of our community.

Common Ground

That word "community" is key to getting a grasp on the kind of art that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have pioneered and which is generating so much activity today. It's not about the wall of the gallery or museum, about some enclosed, private corner of a city visited by the merest fraction of the populace. It's designed precisely for the territory traversed by you and me and the other citizens around us, the terrain where we meet and interact and do business with one another and relax from such business. It's where we commune, our common ground, and as such is some place an artist's work not only may be seen by a greater number and variety of people than in a museum but may tap whatever civic identity we have invested in that spot. Think Barton Springs Pool. Think the Congress Avenue Bridge. Think Mount Bonnell.

Hank Waddell, Robby Lee, and George Sabra
Hank Waddell, Robby Lee, and George Sabra (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Such sites are fertile ground for art. The meaning they have for us, cultivated by history and the consensus of a citizenry that for whatever reasons they matter, seem to make almost any creative expression at them all the richer and more resonant. In Dee McCandless' swimmers' ballet Waterworks, Sally Jacques' meditative performance Body Count, and Glenna Goodacre's statue of Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb, the power of the art was heightened expressly by its being at Barton Springs. All these pieces drew on the power of the place in our public life and wouldn't have worked on us in quite the way they have in a more traditional artistic setting.

Of course, precisely because so much of our communal identity is bound up in such spaces, we tend to be very protective of them. As Christo has noted, they are "full of regulations, ownerships, jurisdictions, meanings" and tend to be carefully overseen by politicians and urban planners. We may be willing to have a work of art added permanently to a public site, but we don't want it to mess with what we find important about that place. Most of the time, that means a prolonged review process with ample time for scrutiny of the proposed artwork and input from citizens. And that, opines Austin artist Hunter Cross, "can easily lead to conservative thinking because of the number of checkboxes that must be filled. Works may never gain approval because of their complexity, their reliance on the artist's personal history, or their aesthetic uniqueness. Indeed, familiarity is funding's best friend.

"For example, the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue on Austin's Hike and Bike Trail is an obvious choice for permanence and institutional approval because it memorializes a regional celebrity, markets the city as musician-friendly, and is made of a traditional art material. But what new cultural discussions did our funding of this sculpture inspire? None."

Here Today ...

So what's an artist who wants to tap that power of the public space but not be creatively hogtied by bureaucracy to do? One of the most obvious and simplest ways to escape the straitjacket that is the approval process for new permanent public art is just make it not permanent. Treat the site like an exhibition space that's available only for a limited time frame. The work goes up on this day and comes down on that one. It not only skirts some of the bureaucratic requirements, it lessens the public anxiety that a beloved locale will be ruined. "Basically, we are borrowing that space and use it intricately for a short time." Christo says of his projects.

It certainly opens up the possibilities for what an artist can do. You aren't bound to the bronze or stone that will endure wind and weather or the recognizable likeness of the human figure, limitations imposed by an indefinite installation. "By specifically choosing to create temporary public works, an artist is able to consider different materials, concepts, and spaces that may be off-limits for the more traditional domain of permanent public art," notes Cross, who explored some of these ideas in the recent Open Doors Collective exhibition "In Between." "The requirements change from 'last forever' to 'simply exist.'"

George Sabra, kneeling; Tom Jewart, standing
George Sabra, kneeling; Tom Jewart, standing (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

That's not to say that public art with a short shelf life is without certain dangers. Cross believes that "temporary work is historically problematic because it makes itself and its ideas easily replaceable. The public is asked to consider an art experience of little consequence."

But others argue that the ephemeral quality of this kind of work is part of what gives it such strength, such beauty. Eva Buttacavoli, AMOA's director of exhibitions and education, speaks of the impermanence in art creating "a fragility, an urgency in the object/project." Certainly, that message came through in the museum's exhibit of work by Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy a year ago. His creations of leaves and twigs and snowballs and spiderwebs, which now exist only in the photographs he took of them, were poignant in their delicacy, quietly speaking to the transience of all things.

Christo, whose works with Jeanne-Claude take years, even decades, to realize but rarely last more than a few weeks, has spoken of a similar quality that informs their efforts: "the quality of love and tenderness that we human beings have for what does not last." For instance, he said in one interview, "we have love and tenderness for childhood because we know it will not last. We have love and tenderness for our own life because we know it will not last. That quality of love and tenderness, we wish to donate it, endow our work with it as an additional aesthetic quality. The fact that the work does not remain creates an urgency to see it. For instance, if someone were to tell you, 'Oh, look on the right, there is a rainbow,' you will never answer, 'I will look at it tomorrow.'"

Size Matters

That sense of urgency Christo speaks of can be intensified when the scale of a work is too big to ignore: 11 islands surrounded by pink fabric, 7,500 gates along the walkways of a park, a government building completely covered in fabric. Buttacavoli notes that "large-scale assumes a quality of the magnificent – in both nature and the built environment – and can invoke awe in its realization (the Grand Canyon, the Great Pyramids, Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial) and disappointment, fear, and sometimes a secret glee in its aberrations or failures (tsunamis, the collapse of the World Trade Center, the eyesore of the Intel building)."

In the world we inhabit, however, we've grown unaccustomed to creative work on a large scale beyond a few socially sanctioned rituals. That kind of manufactured magnificence is pretty much reserved for Olympic ceremonies and Super Bowl halftimes, and even their epic appeal is diluted by their clockwork appearances. We see them coming months in advance, their preparation is trumpeted for all to hear. "We are bombarded by trivial and repetitious things. Every time the same thing again," says Christo, which makes something grand that we've never seen before and never will again, that appears and vanishes in weeks – 3,100 umbrellas opened simultaneously in two countries separated by an ocean, a white nylon fence extending some 25 miles along the Pacific coast – "a demonstration of absolute freedom and total irrationality." The artist has no illusions about such works' importance in the great scheme of things. "The world can live without Umbrellas, without Valley Curtain or Running Fence," he has said. "They have no other reason to be there except poetical creativity, total creativity." And yet that's what draws us to them, because they are, in his words, "sublime unique things."

Nate Schnell, Robby Lee, Ian Cion
Nate Schnell, Robby Lee, Ian Cion (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

And the greater the size, the more magnificent the gesture, the more the work generates a kind of gravity, drawing people to it, people across the social spectrum, the cultural wavelength: young and old, rich and poor, knowledgeable about art and not.


Austin artist Randy Jewart, who has been immersed in the creation of large-scale public works through his organization Austin Green Art (see sidebar), recalls the effect that The Gates had on New York City: "The vibe in the city was just amazing. We were down in TriBeCa having breakfast at some little diner, and you could hear people: 'Yeah, let's go up to Central Park and see that thing.' And it was not the art crowd. It was just pervasive throughout the town. When we got up there, it became clear to me that the project was about inviting the city of New York to take a stroll. It was that simple and that elegant and that powerful. And people did it, and when people were there, you had this vibe, with thousands and thousands of the most sophisticated people in the world just walking around like kids, happy and checking it out. It was amazing."

Jeanne-Claude has witnessed this effect with her and Christo's projects time and again, a transformation in people generated by their exposure to something singular. "You can see the people change," she has said. "They start smiling at each other, they start talking to each other; they are in a completely different state of mind. [It] is very rewarding for us because they feel that freedom and they feel that they are witnessing something that happens once in a lifetime."

"The key is to experience it," says Jewart of monumental, ephemeral public art like The Gates. "When you see a picture of it, it looks kind of weird, and you're like, 'Why would you put all that stuff in Central Park?' But when you're there, it explains itself."

Once you get beyond the rationality of such work, beyond our distinctly American preoccupation with the cost of things, beyond the concern for waste (did I mention that all of the materials in Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects – and Austin Green Art's, for that matter – are recycled after the work is done?), it's about the moment you saw something beautiful and brief and happened to share it with someone else. You might as well call it the Rainbow Connection (if the Muppets don't mind).

Ultimately, large-scale temporary public art "becomes more about experience than the materials," agrees Buttacavoli, and she thinks that may help explain the current surge of interest in it locally. "One thing I figured out about Austin the first year I moved here is that Austinites are experiential! Listen to an Austinite talk about his or her favorite subject – Austin – and it is all about experiences: It is hot summer afternoons at Barton Springs, it is Zilker Park's Trail of Lights, it is Eeyore's Birthday, it is SXSW, it is ACL Festival, a UT game, the Fine Arts Festival, La Dolce Vita, the First Night Parade. It is a rainbow of celebration of things temporary, collaborative, outdoors, and transformative.

"So the question I ask myself, and the question I feel the (Christo and Jeanne-Claude) exhibition and the artists' current work provokes is: How do we transplant our values of appreciation of art (traditionally found in a museum setting) into an experience found in a public setting/or happened upon in the environment? And I would answer that with another question: So how wide is your definition of art?" end story

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