Since 2006, ’s
110-ton reflective sculpture Cloud Gate
(you probably know it as “The Bean”) has occasioned millions of photographs from visitors to Chicago’s Millennium Park. It’s also a clever metaphor for the way public art often works. The beauty of Kapoor’s sculpture can’t be confined to its form; rather, what’s truly remarkable about Cloud Gate
is the way it interacts with its environment, distorting and magnifying the Chicago skyline and the faces of the tourists who come to see it. It is, fundamentally, a “public” work: unpredictable in its mirroring of urban life, democratic in its accessibility and neutrality.
Cloud Gate’s neutrality was put to the test earlier this year when Kapoor announced that he’d be suing the National Rifle Association for using unauthorized footage of his work in a video entitled “Freedom’s Safest Place,” which the artist characterized as “despicable” in its “call to armed violence.” One can certainly agree with Kapoor’s interpretation, and it is, of course, his right to sue the NRA—under American copyright law, commercial reproductions of the shiny sculpture can’t be used without the permission of either Kapoor or the municipal government.
Still, it’s worth taking a step back to recognize the irony here. Cloud Gate was supposed to be a mirror—is a mirror—held up to society. It was supposed to be photographed and visited and revisited endlessly. It was supposed to be for everyone. Opposing the sculpture’s inclusion in a video—even a vile, hateful one—would seem to undermine that mission.
That’s the strange thing about public sculpture: It’s never really for everyone, even if it seems to be. Sooner or later, the intentions of the artist, the public, and the government clash. You could argue that, when this clash occurs, the sculpture has failed—but in fact, that’s just when things start to get interesting. If these six artworks are any indication, success is overrated; it might be better that public sculptures achieve spectacular, thought-provoking failure.