No more public sculptures! murals! monuments! art!
Eero Merimaa
No more Public Art! Here. It is said. I don’t agree with myself. But I feel that way, in a way. Recently, the city officials in Turku put the statue of Lenin in a plywood box to wait for its removal. I´m a little bit sad for that – not because I would want to commemorate the legacy of Soviet Union and their imperial practices, but for the simple fact that Lenin’s statue used to be one of the most vandalized public monuments in Turku. A kind of a bulletin board for quick political messages. There is a certain value in being the most vandalized statue. I have a beautiful picture of that Lenin with red lipstick. In a way, vandalism brings new ideas to old statues. Queer Lenin - yes. I find it weirdly interesting that a man named Laszlo Toth malleted Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome claiming to be the Christ. Or that one of the Henry Moores disappeared from the hills of England and was probably cut into pieces and sold as scrap metal. It’s terrible, yet fascinating! Modern-day iconoclasm. It becomes clear that not all artworks are artworks for all.
Again, in Turku, a large mural was painted over by a company selling vegan milk. Social media cried out for the threatened artistic values. And lipstick-Lenin had to go. Meanwhile, a double statue of a meeting of the Russian tsar Aleksander I and Swedish crown prince Karl Johan in Turku(r.1), to draw new borders of the empires and to shift the rule over Finland under the Russian order, still remains. Even though it was a project started by the Putin regime. Maybe its high value as a selfie-spot reduces the will to remove it. Even though it celebrates the history of European colonialism.
What publicity (principles of Public Art and the reduction of “Art” in “Public Art”)
Historically there has been three reasons to erect artworks in public areas. To signify an important historical event; to state the importance of an important individual; or to illustrate the commitment of the authorities towards culture, humanistic values and arts.(r.2) There has been three methods for doing so. Erecting artworks wherever they fit; designing artworks for a certain specific site; and designing artworks in a collaboration with the users of the artwork – as in situation specific art.(r.3) Altogether, the reasons for the existence of public artworks seem to be rather instrumental, and the methods have been affected by the long tradition of public monumental art that has celebrated stability instead of temporality. Public artworks are usually designed to be long lasting. Life cycles are measured by decades instead of months.
Public artworks come and go, and their meanings and political connotations change in time. In time, most of the public artworks become almost invisible to the (local)audience. Little by little they start to lose their status as a novelty focal point in the cityscape, as their bodies mix into the material structure of everyday scenery. Like advertisement and traffic lights, old decorations, or benches. We get to know them – too well. In some perspective, this could be considered as a failure of the work - not being able to grasp its audience all the time. But to be fair, being able to appreciate art, one needs a certain kind of a lingering state of mind, which doesn’t happen too often on your way from A to B.
Artworks in public places also need to be of a certain quality. Weird ideologies or profanity end the artworks´ life cycle sooner or later, as we have witnessed. They need to be harmless. As I´m writing this, a shopping mall exhibition in Pori, Finland, was forced to censor their artworks because the audience had reportedly been offended by the artworks.(r.4) Phalluses, of course! The public sphere is not equipped to tolerate markings that challenge dominant manners and aesthetics too much. Arthur Danto has allegedly suggested that public art could even be considered as a separate aesthetic genre in modern art, because of its many content limitations and endless hunger for public acceptance.(r.5)
What is public space then? A space accessible for all? Used by all? Governed by all? Owned by some and given away for all to use? City center or shopping center, a nearby forest? All of them, and none. It is very hard for us to grasp the complex entanglement of ownership, economic and political interests; the meta structures behind the public realm. In a Habermasian sense, the emergence of the public sphere has been located “…in the clubs, coffeehouses, debating societies, museums, newspapers, and other institutions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, where members of the rising bourgeois middle class gathered to discuss various matters of “public” interest.”(r.6) The common “living room” of the people is actually a very governed and limited space and, in some sense, even discriminatory. And that is the sphere where public art is mostly considered.
Public space is often privately owned. For instance, the mural that was painted over by an advertiser was located in a wall owned by a housing cooperative, that probably uses the wall to secure funding by selling an advertisement space. The mural was very visible in the cityscape, but at the same time, it had become almost invisible. Public artworks that have been “forgotten” by the public seem to become interesting again when they are touched, vandalized or removed.(r.7) The values and ideas that they inhabit activate and become visible again in change.
Orienting towards creosote and desire (counter monuments to commemorate the wastelands)
If we were to consider that the backbone of public art is rooted somewhere within the logic of monument, what are the incidents, individuals, or places we want to commemorate? Next to the statue of Alexander and Karl Johan, a performance artist Marcio Carvalho conducted a different kind of a monument, a monument of living people discussing and performing alternative possibilities for a public sculpture.(r.8) I can vaguely remember a festive gathering of people, a form covered with a blue sheet that was brought in, and the new statue was uncovered. A chair. A human being sitting on a chair. Stagnation of the polished bronze imperialists was briefly run over by a negotiation, a dialogical attempt to understand our multifaceted society from a human point of view.
Carvalho´s performance made the obvious fact very concrete – we are quite incapable of influencing the politics of cityscape. The permanent counter monument that his performance was heading towards was never realized. Tourists are taking selfies in front of Aleksander and Carl Johan. History doesn’t get erased and the city holds itself as a city. It’s in the structures of our surroundings. But what happens to the idea of “public”, when we make a shift from the paved city centers to the outskirts of the public sphere? Outer limits of the cities; non-places and wastelands, non-fashionable neighborhoods and industrial areas? In an artistic sense, a turn from a place to a non-place seems to alter the perception pretty much a same way than interventions to the conventional dynamics of the cityscape. We suddenly become much more aware of the site itself and its meanings.
1. Creosote – artists as affectionate observers
I came across a posting in Instagram stating a happening called Creosote Orienteering. Nothing but that. The word “Creosote” gave it away for me – it’s a poison that has been used to saturate the railroad ties. You were to send a message for the organizing party to receive more information. I did, and got some vague maps and photos of a train yard just outside the city center. Artists Ville Ruuska and John Sundberg had made a site-specific artwork in the semi-public site that they held important. A site that they knew very well. The train yard itself is not allowed to the public, but random people are tolerated. It has become a place for dog walkers and others just loitering around. Another kind of a public space within the city. Without commerciality, shopping, tended parks and walking paths. With an exciting hint of danger, trash and chaos.
Many of the sites like the train yard are much used by young artists and art students. They take these places as their common “living rooms”. Places to gather and make things and installations of stuff. Creative, malleable places. As a celebratory act of declaring a certain place an artwork, which I think Creosote Orienteering did, we are forced to think about public artwork in another way. There is no one focal point but many, and they are in constant change.
The very core of site specificity is that the place gives something to the artwork, and without the specific place, the artwork cannot fully be. In a way, it relates to the basic idea of the monument, which is to be a place signifier. Monuments tie together authority, myth, and a place. In Creosote Orienteering, the scattered artworks here and there, and the rich aesthetics of the place itself, mixed together and formed an artistic experience without any clear limits – you couldn’t know where reality ended and art began. As a viewer, you couldn’t remain passive. You needed to invest attention and be present. These kinds of experiences are good examples of the totality that art is capable of.
2. Desire – artists as aliens
In Lasnamäe suburb in Tallinn the streets align in geometric patterns like a maze. Architecture is very pragmatic. The buildings are huge blocks of concrete with asphalt pavements. Vegetation is delimited next to the kindergartens, edges of buildings and parking lots. But again, just outside the wall of buildings, in the outskirts of the area, another kind of environment kicks in. Large grass fields with trails to unknown places. Huge electric masts and a blue sky. Wasteland, a space in between, a non-place.
A group of seven art students, myself and a colleague of mine formed a temporary collective(r.9) to make an art intervention in Lasnamäe during an intensive period of PARTGO. The very first notion on the site was that we actually had no mental connection to the place. We were visitors, and in our work, we wanted to recognize and celebrate our outsideness. As a strong opposition to the highly structured architecture, we conducted a performative act of walking in a large circle. To view and exhibit our placelessness, and a lack of a certain direction. The site was defined by the wonderfully exciting trails, “desire paths”, that started from the densely built area and led to different directions.
I wasn´t aware that the paths that people create while taking short-cuts are called desire paths in English. What a wonderful name that is! It´s a soft, strategical method against the overpowering architecture, a collective human voice to negotiate alternative pragmatic aesthetics to the hyper designed environment. It is rebellious.
The process of walking the circle produced a temporary happening and also a large (crop) circle to the site. In a sense, we wanted to leave a mark of our visit, but also make sure that we wouldn’t produce anything too permanent. As visitors, we became very conscious that it couldn’t be our vision of the place that would dictate the nature of the “public artwork”. It is a comforting idea that the grass will eventually grow on our work and make way for future markings.
No more public art?
As I previously suggested, there has been three reasons for art to be in public places, and those reasons have been mainly considered from the authorities’ point of view. To strengthen the establishment. To guide people’s attention. I´m forced to ask myself whether that kind of art is really needed or not. Some say that art is needed to enliven the cityscape. Why wouldn’t decent architecture, well designed green areas and traffic planning do the trick? As Creosote Orienteering and our little intervention in Lasnamäe quietly suggested – at least for me – we need more public spaces that strengthen peoples creative potential and agency within the city. I think this could be a new description for public art, a constantly changing monument for the city itself.
  1. Meeting in Turku 1812, Andrei Kovalchuk. 2012
  2. Karttunen, Sari. Julkisen taiteen monet käytöt. s. 46.
  3. Kwon, Miwon. Public Art as Publicity. 2002.
  4. Tapani Kokko, Ars Pori 22. visited 29.9.
  5. Karttunen, Sari. Julkisen taiteen monet käytöt. s.49.
  6. Kwon, Miwon. Public Art as Publicity. 2002.
  7. …also in cases when the physical or mental surroundings are in change.
  8. A Meeting in Turku | Marcio Carvalho Art | Counter-monument | public space ( visited 28.9.
  9. RANYUCALLI -collective: Desire Path 135/ 66. Péter Drapkó, László Korösi, Ville Laitinen, Eero Merimaa, Veera Rajamo, Inessa Saarits, Stephanie Saidha, Patsy Tyrrell, Otto-Ville Väätäinen
  1. Meeting in Turku 1812 (behind a construction project). Andrei Kovalchuk. 2012. Bronze, shovel, construction site fence. Photo: Eero Merimaa
  2. Lenin memorial (with lipstick). Mihail Anikusin, 1977. Bronze, paint,  red granite. Photo: Eero Merimaa
  3. Desire Path 135/ 66. RANYUCALLI-collective, 2022. Walking on grass. Photo: Tonu Tunnel