Psychological interactions in public and private space
The following article first featured in December 2004’s issue 16 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.
This article discusses minamalistic artistic approaches to public art that appeals to the imaginations of mass audiences subliminally – and in some cases via evoking an almost primordial sense of cultural awe.
Running annually at Tate Modern is an exhibition series called Untitled, which aspires to push at the boundaries of contemporary art practice. The first year’s programme, The Public World of the Private Space, considers the human condition in public and private environments, and in particular, the representation of space. The current exhibition is by the Malian photographer, Mohamed Camara, and deals with domestic subjects from his hometown in Mali – including dark interior shots with atmospheric silhouettes of people, partially illuminated by blinding sunshine.
Interaction within atmospheric conditions in private space, also occurred within Tate Modern recently, as part of the highly evocative installation by Olafur Eliasson called The Weather Project (part of the Unilever Series within the Turbine Hall that had previously featured Anish Kapoor’s wonderfully organic and architectural Marsyas). The piece took on the cavernous space, through the installation of a huge half-disc, cloaked in artificial mist and sunlight that, reflected whole by the fully mirrored ceiling, became a mystical sun. What became most notable at the end of the showing however, was not just the work, but also the public’s collective and un-choreographed desire to continually interact with it. Mass public installations became the norm as impromptu groups lay on the floor to create skydiving patterns or to ‘mirror-write’ words or text on the ceiling above. Individuals sat or lay for hours to reflect on themselves and their part in a greater whole – in both a literal and metaphysical sense. Eminent psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung often wrote of our collective response to such base stimuli. He felt that there was a tendency of the collective unconscious to shape the present from a time when humans were only just emerging from their animal past. He believed it presented itself in the form of collections of images, including simple, geometric figures and emotions (particularly at crucial situations, such as birth and death) as well as more complex forms including real or mythical animals, and figures. In short, he felt we could be prompted to respond involuntarily in a pre determined manner – providing someone or something pressed the right buttons in the correct circumstances.
The veteran US artist Bruce Nauman, also likes to mine the rich veins of human emotions and psychological states, through his own performance-based work. He has recently become the fifth artist commissioned for the Unilever Series, and his sound-sculpture Raw Materials (sampled from an entire back catalogue of his past work) is now installed throughout the Turbine Hall on 36 flush speakers – referencing the buildings past, through a ghostly background hum, resonant of long-dead turbines. The work explores ambiguous repetitions and rhythms of common everyday language, to question the meaning we derive from it and the interactive responses (if any) we might add to it. “Work! Work! Work! Work!” one speaker bawls, whilst simple mantras like “thank you”, “No” and “OK” are repeated until they become unbearable, like Chinese water torture. Gradually, as you progress through the space, more complex phrases are revealed, culminating in what the museum calls the “ironically hopeful” World Peace, where actors endlessly rehearse: “We’ll talk, they’ll listen/You’ll talk, we’ll listen.” The innovation in Nauman’s work (which dates back to the 1960’s) was recently acknowledged, when he became the 2004 laureate for sculpture in the Praemium Imperiale, a global arts prize awarded annually by the Japan Art Association – by its own admission, “the mark of the highest international distinction for achievements in the arts”. Six international nomination committees proposed candidates in five fields of the arts, and with Nauman currently sitting alongside his fellow laureate for Architecture, Oscar Niemeyer, his huge international standing is clear. Of course, the visiting public’s reaction to Raw Materials has been largely one of collective incomprehension and disappointment – particularly given the huge visual appeal of the populist Weather Project and Marsyas. What they haven’t realised yet, is that they have once again become unwitting pawns in a huge artistic game – one in which they are as much a part of the ‘art’ as the installations themselves. Influenced during his earlier career by Samuel Beckett’s stark minimalist work exploring the human condition, and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory on words being used as tools or gamespieces (with set rules of engagement and pre determined functions) Nauman believes strongly that his art has a clear social purpose, which is applies through attempting to trigger subconscious responses. “I am interested in making work that feels like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat” Nauman once stated.
Meanwhile, in the depths of the Turbine Hall, distant voices repeatedly call out “You may not want to be here,” and “Get me out of my mind, get me out of this room,” whilst, above the bridge in the middle of the space, an ominous cry asks us to “Think! Think! Think! Think!.” So it is, in our modern three-minute culture of usually having nothing left to the imagination, that here we discover nothing is left to physically fill the architectural vacume of this great chamber, but ones imagination.