Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Remembering the public artworks the fueled the most heated reactions in 2014.
Public art did its part this year to prove that 2014 was the Year of Outrage. (As if you needed any more proof.) Maybe it just goes to show that art is an important part of the public conversation that artworks sparked so much debate this year. Or maybe these artworks helped to show that Main Street is more divided than ever.
Some public art provoked more outrage than the artworks could stand. When the American artist Paul McCarthy erected a sex toy–shaped inflatable sculpture called Tree for his memorable solo exhibition in Paris back in October, he met immediate opposition. The French have a reputation as a chill culture when it comes to sex, but Parisians showed their puritanical side.
One outraged viewer reportedly struck McCarthy in the face during the work's installation. Within 48 hours of the debut of Tree, some seriously unimpressed Parisians had vandalized the work, leaving a deflated green sac in Place Vendôme. Although he never restored Tree, McCarthy got his revenge, sort of. His concurrent solo exhibit at the Monnaie de Paris included a petulant jab at his critics. There were no shortage of les plugs in McCarthy's show, called "Chocolate Factory," in which pretty blonde women pour chocolate into molds of anal plugs.
Even successful public artworks this year were built around outrage. Kara Walker's A Subtlety, which the artist installed in Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Factory, was a huge hit. Bey Z were two of the more than 130,000 people who visited the artist's monumental sugar-baby sphinx. People liked A Subtlety so much, in fact, that they couldn't keep their hands off it. The sculpture inspired scores of Instagram photos in which people posed as if they were messing with the sculpture's breasts and labia. "The Audacity of No Chill" read the headline to an emotion-charged review by Stephanye Watts in Gawker.
The misbehaving public outraged critics (and less juvenile viewers). But Walker knew what she was doing. In an interview with Carolina Miranda of the Los Angeles Times, Walker says that she anticipated the different problems that A Subtelty would create for white and black viewers. The artist explains:
How do people look? How are people supposed to look? Are white audiences looking at it in the right way? And are black audiences looking to see this piece? And, of course, my question is: What is the right way to look at a piece that is full of ambiguities and ego and all the other things that go into making a monumental sculpture?
It's no different from Zora Neale Hurston. There's always this question: "Is she using language in a way that is demeaning to black people? Is it a throwback for her to be using colloquial Southern speech? Is it capitulating to the demand of white audiences who want to hear black people in a particular way? Or is it speaking her truth? And is that allowed as a black artist? Are we allowed to be individuals within this sea? Or do we have to be unified in this collective?
Of course she knew folks wouldn't be able to control themselves. ("I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do," Walker tells Miranda.) So the artist recorded interactions between the work and its sometimes-too-adoring public. From the silly to the offensive, all those selfies made their way into a followup show, which is now on view at her gallery, Sekkima Jenkins.
At Columbia University, art student Emma Sulkowicz won wide acclaim this year for Carry That Weight, her senior thesis—a project she would very much like to cancel. Since early in the semester, Sulkowicz has hauled her mattress with her everywhere on campus; the piece is a protest against the university's decision not to take action against a student whom she says raped her and assaulted two others. (That student, Paul Nungesser, has since come forward publicly to say that he is the victim of a targeted bullying campaign.) The artist, who has said she may carry her mattress with her to graduation if need be, has inspired similar performances on other campuses.
A discussion about speech in university settings spilled out from the classroom to the campus grounds at Wellesley College early in the year. Some students argued that the sculpture—which depicts a lifelike man sleepwalking in his drawers—should be moved to a place where students who have experienced sexual assault aren't forced to confront it. Read Jill Filipovic on trigger warnings on campus and Wellesley College president H. Kim Bottomly on her decision to stand behind the artist in the face of mounting criticism. (Discomfort with the piece eventually took the form of destruction: Toward the end of the exhibit's run, the piece was vandalized.)
Outrage killed one public artwork in 2014 altogether. Canadian artist Mia Feuer, who enjoyed her first museum solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art at the start of the year, proposed to build a sunken gas station in the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. While the artist's goal was to promote a better understanding of the dangers of global climate change—and to build a very cool if very temporary sculpture—people who lived near and used the Anacostia didn't see it that way.
A coalition of, for lack of a better term, river NIMBYs objected to the artist's vision, saying that it would only confirm an image of a polluted river that they've been trying to dispel for years. Feuer's piece never happened—and it wasn't the only piece challenged in that D.C. festival, either.
One of the greatest public artworks this year was simply outrageous. In July, two white flags appeared on the Brooklyn Bridge, a piece of infrastructure that sees its fair share of art stunts. One month later, two German artists took credit for the caper. But by August, police in New York and across the nation had more pressing concerns.
It's encouraging to see that art, like protest, still plays a vital role in shaping discourse. Yet some of these stories makes it seem as though public art is less certain—less guaranteed—than in the past. In truth, though, this list only skims the surface of memorable public art installations this year, catching just the ones big enough to make national or international headlines. Cities everywhere are debating and investing in public art, maybe now more than ever, from New York and Los Angeles to places like Chattanooga and San Diego and Iowa City and Huntsville and Tallahassee.
And, of course, Vancouver.