“Man is by nature a social animal,” Aristotle once famously said—and perhaps this week, the late philosopher could be caught smiling upon Miami’s Collins Park. For the Public sector of Art Basel in Miami Beach, produced in partnership with the Bass Museum of Art, Public Art Fund’s Director and Chief Curator and Art Basel Miami Beach PUBLIC curator, Nicholas Baume, has brought together over 30 large-scale sculptures and installations under the theme of “Social Animals”—forming a temporary community where each work is in conversation with the next. Set among the cityscape of Miami Beach, works by artists from Olaf Breuning to Jeppe Hein, Sam Falls to Mungo Thomson are in constant conversation—and to continue the discussion further, Baume invited a handful of the artists to a roundtable to chat about the work. From the three distinct voices of Carol Bove, Oscar Tuazon, and Alicja Kwade, learn about the spontaneous, incidental fulfillment of public art, the appeal of exhibiting work in the context of other artists, and why “Social Animals” just might be the perfect title for a show of public sculpture.
Nicholas Baume: How do you feel your work changes when viewed within a public park as opposed to a gallery setting?
Carol Bove: The viewer’s quality of attention is different outside. He or she approaches the outdoor work with an attitude of indifference. We know the sculpture gets rained on and we adopt an attitude consistent with that of the exhibitor who has allowed for what would normally be considered a horrible transgression. This permission of rain, or even bird shit, influences our thinking. The artwork seems so naked. The sculpture is not in a specially constructed space where we can visit it, the sculpture is in our space.
Oscar Tuazon: For me the most interesting place to work is outdoors, in a public setting. A gallery is always a framing device, and without that frame a work has to stand on its own. There’s a greater potential for failure, I think—a sculpture can disappear. But without that frame, an artwork can actually be disruptive, which is never really possible within the permissive space of an art gallery.
Alicja Kwade: An outdoor piece in a public park always becomes much closer to the environment and the viewer as well as to daily life in general; it doesn’t have a protected area like in a museum or gallery. The distance between the viewer and the piece becomes very small, and in a lot of cases people believe that when a piece is outside it is something which is allowed to be “used”. It’s much more surprising to discover a work in a public space, whereas it’s expected in a gallery or museum.
Nicholas Baume: Do people respond differently to the work when they experience it in a public space?
CB: Yes. There is very likely a lack of intention on the part of the viewer. The encounter is probably a spontaneous one; it is incidental, not the fulfillment of a specific planned activity. The encounter might be a pleasant surprise or it might be an annoyance, like when a sculpture blocks one’s path to work. Or maybe the sculpture functions as a handy landmark: turn left at the [Alexander] Calder or meet you at the [Henry] Moore. Sometimes the repeated exposure to a sculpture when we are not paying attention fixes it in our minds below the level of consciousness. It is ingrained as a part of our experience in a social space. Sometimes we think we dislike a public sculpture and write it off or forget about it, but the way it works on our unconscious mind might have more bearing than we realize.
OT: Outside, a sculpture is just another thing in the world, it doesn’t have any special status, which is how it should be. Without the context provided by an exhibition situation, people treat a sculpture like any other feature of the built environment: they sit on it if they can, they touch it, some people write their names on it. I try to anticipate that, it’s like a collaboration. A sculpture in public is incomplete without an audience. How people interact with the work forms the meaning of the work.
AK: Yes, exactly. I guess they are much more free with their reactions because they are not being observed by a museum guard or a gallerist and do not have to explain themselves to anybody.
Nicholas Baume: The theme around which I’ve curated this year’s Public sector is “Social Animals”. How does that title resonate for you, and is it relevant to your work?
CB: Yes, it’s relevant.
OT: The way I understand, or misunderstand, the theme is as a confusion between people and objects. I think of a sculpture as a person. In that sense the social space formed between people includes objects, it includes sculptures. So for me “Social Animals” is a good description of what a sculpture actually is—formed through its relationship to other people, but not quite human.
AK: We are all social animals and we are dependent on the system for which we work together to invent and accept. Our reality is created by social agreements, and because we are social animals, we don’t question things; we just follow the others of our kind.
My work deals with exactly those agreements that we create and follow. In this case, it’s about what we call “time”, and how we move in that construction even when we all can feel that this can not be “true” at all. I used the exact form of the borders between time zones, which have been created because of economic and logistic reasons that had to be solved to make the world work.
In my work these “pulses” that we follow are becoming visible.
Nicholas Baume: There’s an international and generational mix among the 24 artists featured in “Social Animals”. Does it interest you to see your work in the context of other artists’ works, and if so why?
CB: Of course! Who wants to make puny monuments to one’s self or about one’s own ideas? I want to contribute to something enduring and always evolving, something that can never be completed.
OT: Working in public is the most exciting horizon for sculpture right now. Maybe the only place where real innovation is possible. We’re at the beginning of an era of redefining what can be done in public space, and there's a very small group of people thinking about this and working on it right now. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how other artists approach the problem.
AK: Yes of course! Because each work can be very much influenced in the formal way but also in the reception, depending on the other works. That is the big difference between a good or a bad show—in the best case the works are supporting themselves or are giving themselves new wings.
Nicholas Baume: Have you always been interested in showing work in the public realm, or has that grown in recent years—and if so, why?
CB: I did not become interested in outdoor sculpture until recently. For a long time I was biased against this type of work. I thought that it pretended to be egalitarian when it was in fact elitist since you would have to have an education in its language to understand it. (I’m thinking specifically about sculptural abstraction). But when I examined that long-held assumption I realized it did not track with my own experience; as a child, i.e. as an uneducated viewer, I felt welcomed and stimulated by outdoor abstraction. It seemed as much like a jungle gym as a sculpture. And that the works had no discernable purpose was a very compelling and open-ended provocation. Now that I realize what an invitation outdoor artwork was for me, I feel very excited by it.
OT: My very first successful works as an artist were in public. I was making cardboard sculptures on the streets of Manhattan, sculptures in the forests, temporary installations attached to buildings, projects in subway tunnels. All these projects were destroyed almost as soon as they were made, of course. I work with different materials now, but I guess the dynamic is the same. Working in public is risky, hard work, and a public sculpture should reflect that—unstable, transitory, incomplete.
AK: I always have been, because it seemed to be a challenge for me; but also because I love public sculpture and I’m sure that public sculpture is a very important part of the public’s appreciation of art, which we need.
The Public sector opens Wednesday, December 4th at Collins Park, 2100 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, from 8:30pm - 10pm. Learn more about the Art Basel in Miami Beach Public sector here.
Nicholas Baume has been Director and Chief Curator of Public Art Fund since September 2009. Prior to joining Public Art Fund, Baume served as Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where he was responsible for shaping the artistic program from 2003-2009.
Oscar Tuazon, Untitled, 2013, courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber.