I’ll start by acknowledging that I am aware that I’m definitely in the minority in my opinion here, but I feel it’s worth saying in any case.
Blank walls all over Perth and WA are currently undergoing a transformation under the guidance of FORM, WA’s prime advocates of ‘excellence in creativity and artistic practice’. For the second year in a row ‘PUBLIC’ will see 42 walls on buildings throughout the city and suburbs of Perth, as well as some further afield, painted with extensive murals in what is a massive programme of public art.
I’m going on record as being anti-PUBLIC.
I’ll quickly follow that by stating the work which has been created is absolutely of the highest standard, and is absolutely beautiful. It’s the canvas I take exception to.
The conceit here is layered to a point where I may not be able to clearly unpack it, but I’ll have a go anyway. The first aspect is that the urban (or suburban, or rural) realms lack life and/or are ugly and/or disappointing. The second is that blank walls, buildings and spaces are surfaces to be exploited by those who perceive themselves to have a better idea. The third is that bright, vibrant art and colour is the solution to disappointing buildscapes and should be applied wherever an exploitable surface appears. There’s a fourth idea about institutionalising and commodifying art which is probably too big a beast for me to even contemplate tackling here.
So my reactions are thus (and bear in mind that I’m not necessarily coming to conclusions nor providing alternatives or solutions, I’m just shouting into the void):
There is a lot of dross in Perth in terms of buildings, of all scales. Too much land and largesse has been afforded to the developer looking for a quick buck. Too little vision (or control) has been applied to the planning of buildings and spaces which, if done well, might grow culturally useful and economically suitable communities, just as life inhabits a reef. More consideration is given to the often mandatory sculpture which stands in front of a new building than to the facade of that building, and how it activates and reacts to its place. If we have a disappointing buildscape then it is our own fault for so poorly considering these massive structures and how they affect our lives.
Having said that, PUBLIC hasn’t just applied itself to the exteriors of design missteps and slap-dash follies. Beautifully designed and considered buildings have been taken to with gay abandon as well; from the handsome curved stairwells of Central Tafe, to the bold geometric form of Leederville’s Water Corp building, to the vast textured acreage of Many 6160, the former Fremantle Myer department store, to QV1, designed by arguably Australia’s greatest architect of the modern age. So architecture and its intent is trumped by art. The built form is a billboard for contemporary skill and ego, with no consideration of its worth as an artwork in its own right, or a valuable asset as it stands. Good and bad architecture are treated equally, so this isn’t an enterprise interested in elevating the best of our built environment.
Which brings me to my thoughts on the ‘blank’ wall as canvas. It’s noticeable amongst the works commissioned by FORM that few, if any, react to the building itself in any sense further than a basic reading of its use/s and perhaps its location. These artworks are applied with little to no heed of their hosts, negating the skin of the building as if it were a white page or blank canvas.
I view this as a disrespectful gesture to those who have come before – the architects, the builders, the craftsmen, the engineers, the inhabitants. Those who toiled to create that form, that wall, that vast structure. Those who proudly noted their job well done, with perfect mortar joints or a seamless render. Those whose vision was to create a strong, towering structure which might have embodied concepts and rationales, and who were commissioned by others to carry out that vision. The work of millions of man hours subjugated by a fresh approach and a cavalier attitude.
But bright, vibrant colours and art will save the world, right? We’ll construct average buildings because we can always paint a bird on it later on. We will paint a bird on the work of talented designers and builders because obviously they got it wrong and forgot to include the bird in the first place, silly them. Let’s plan poorly now and do a renovation rescue later.
Art is great, art has so many places in our lives, nothing against art. Art in galleries, art in houses, art in alley ways and art on rubbish bins. Art with comment and art with power. But never art as decoration and never art as stand-in for a well considered built environment.
If PUBLIC was being used to highlight failings in the built environment then I might have a different opinion. If FORM was using this platform as an opportunity to contribute to the built environment in the same spirit as the finger-scrawled ‘wash me’ on the dirty car window, then I might have a different opinion. If FORM was using PUBLIC art to stand up and say NO MORE to a lifeless, lazy, cheap and nasty built environment, then I might have a different opinion.
But it’s a costly cheap fix, a beautiful band-aid, and its distracting from the real challenge. There is an insect and a buffalo on the side of the Myer building and I don’t see the point.