Visual Arts Review: New Public Art – Past, Present and Future Ghosts of the Imagination

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By Mark Faverman

Recently, a number of public works of art have been commissioned to commemorate ghosts or “wraiths” of the past.

ghost forest by Maya Lin (2021) commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservation. Photo: Studio Maya Lin.

For many, public art conjures up images of bronze statues of a soldier on horseback, images of historically important and/or forgotten politicians or leaders, or symbolic (often mythological) figures of metaphorical significance. But these days, public art takes on a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and forms. It can be temporary or permanent. Because this type of art is designed to be visually and physically accessible to the public, the artist’s goal is to embody universal concepts that must have both aesthetic and conceptual value. The responsibility of public art is to encourage us to think in ways that will hopefully elevate our collective public discourse.

A strategic approach to 21st century public art focuses on themes that embrace and interpret the history of a place and its surrounding population. It is also expected to address social and/or environmental issues. Recently, a number of public works of art have been commissioned to commemorate ghosts or “wraiths” of the past. These “spirits” range from the deterioration of our environment to urban blight and martyred heroes.

Maya Lin ghost forest, a stand of skeletal trees, has been installed in New York’s Madison Square Park on a green space ten blocks south of the Empire State Building. This temporary public art installation opened in May and consists of a group of 49 dead Atlantic white cedars that were “harvested” in New Jersey’s Pinelands, an area destroyed by sea level rise. the sea and other aspects of catastrophic climate change. Strictly funereal, ghost forest is serious to the point of being intensely serious. Witty and even irony have never been part of Lin’s aesthetic. But, given the subject matter, this austerity makes some sense.

These once majestic cedars, and the myriad life forms they supported, once covered hundreds of thousands of acres of New Jersey and New York. The trees are now gone. Those used by the artist underline a emaciated vision of what has become a decrepit wasteland. Solemnity seems appropriate, but the silent vigil launched by ghost forest Maybe correct too solemn.

Lin explains that ghost forest is a dire warning about the impending doom of the earth (and ours). Dead trees are representative of the endgame generated by our environmental indifference to what humans have done (and are doing) to the natural world. There were plans for an audio accompaniment to the project that incorporated the sounds of birds lost to our voracious political economy. Lin’s earnest message sounds more like a soporific sermon than a hellish visual oration. ghost forest is not one of his deepest pieces.

In 2017, the Whitney Museum commissioned concept artist David Hammons to create End of the day, a permanent public artwork located in the park along the southern edge of the Gansevoort peninsula, directly opposite the Whitney. It sits in the large footprint of the old Pier 52.

Completed earlier this year, End of day is a skeletal recreation of Pier 52, an abandoned industrial shed that once jutted into the Hudson River beside the High Line. Its name was inspired by the radical transformation of the building by conceptual environmental artist Gordon Matta-Clark in 1975. In this sense, it is a “ghost monument” of Matta-Clark’s earlier work. The structure also references the history of New York’s waterfront, the Meatpacking District, and the contribution of artists to the neighborhood, as well as the region’s ethnic histories, its LGBTQ history, and the changing ecology. of the estuary.

End of the day by David Hammons, 2014–21. Photo: Jason Schmidt

End of the day rises directly south of the new Gansevoort Peninsula Park, which features a sandy beach with kayak access and seating area; a salt marsh with habitat improvements; a large sports field. On the west side of the park, there are picnic tables as well as lounge chairs. With the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, the area has already become very busy.

Matta-Clark’s guerrilla concept art was edgy, visceral, and perhaps even dangerous. This new work of art is large, 52 feet by 325 feet by 65 feet, to the point of being intrusive to the environment. It is more than three times deeper than a single Manhattan building lot and more than twice as wide. Moreover, the work is almost as tall as a five-story building. Hammon’ End of the day can be admired for its gargantuan weight, but the completed room comes across as far too quiet, safe, and architecturally elegant. This $17 million ghost monument should have been designed to be a more powerful visual metaphor. And what impact will this have on its natural environment?

Speaking of ghost monuments, royal brothers Harry and William unveiled a monument to their late mother, Princess Diana, in June in recognition of what would have been her 60and birthday. The bronze figurative statue stands in the Sunken Garden on the grounds of Kensington Palace. Surrounded by the woman’s favorite flowers and plants, the piece features the late princess with her arms around three unknown children, supposedly a reference to her work for humanitarian causes.

This secular (semi-religious?) version of the Madonna and Children is a mundane early 20th century statuary rather than a provocatively uplifting 21st century sculptural form. Created by conservative figurative artist Ian Rank-Broadley, the statue is seriously fueling the semi-cult of Diana worshipers. It’s too literal and not very good. Diana’s face is stiff and lifeless; there is very little joy as she exercises her selflessness. She is connected to the mid-scale adult child statues that stand in front of her. The piece captures nothing of his humanity, vitality or personality.

Sadly, the Di status is representative of the poorly made, equally sterile statues of athletes and alumni that defile our stadiums and college campuses. This “I may not know anything about art, but I know what I like approach” to celebrating important public figures – via insignificant calculated works of art – is a waste of money and effort. About the tribute to Diana, a thoughtful English critic wrote that at least the flowers in the garden were beautiful.

The Duke of Cambridge (left) and the Duke of Sussex look at the statue of Ian Rank-Broadley (2021) in Kensington Palace’s Sunken Garden.

And this review leads to a piece of public art that will soon be installed on the Boston Common: The embrace, a bronze-finished sculpture of two giant pairs of arms embracing each other to honor Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. The 22-foot-tall sculpture by artist Hank Willis Thomas was inspired by a photo of the married couple s embracing after King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize.

According to Thomas, the accent of The embrace is about an overlooked part of MLK’s legacy. At the root of his civil rights efforts was his romantic relationship with his wife. This figurative sculpture was the most traditional of the five finalists. But, according to Thomas collaborators, MassDesign, the piece is different in one distinctive way. The embrace will be constructed of bronze-plated stainless steel with a mirror finish, so viewers can see their own bronze reflections. The artist hopes that viewers, through their reflections, will see themselves as part of the continuing legacy of the Kings’ work.

A committee of Martin Luther King and public art scholars, arts administrators and artists, led by Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, and Karin Goodfellow, director of the Boston Art Commission, chose Thomas’ winning design. Prior to its selection, the five designs were displayed for a month at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Nubian Square. The public was invited to provide comments.

Looking at the available renderings, this artwork seems rather clunky, too literal, and seemingly inelegant to be located on historic Boston Common. Hopefully, the completed piece will express the dignity, passion and spirituality of the rich and complex lives and achievements of the kings.


Urban planner and public artist, Marc Faverman has been deeply involved in branding, improving and creating more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of artistic fuse.

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