Creator, Context, Community: Negotiating Meaning in Public Art

Public Art of the People, for the People, by the People[1]

Deftly appropriating the words of Abraham Lincoln, cultural critic Julie Hanus, in her UTNE Reader response to the Public Art Review, 2010, argues for public art to be removed from the zealous hands of city planners and local council leaders, correctly suggesting these works are, at their heart, dependent on the people of the community. Through its brevity and direct point her simple title phrase becomes a potential mantra for all future public art commissions, however her statement is by no means a simple one.

Initially the notion of public art “of the people” suggests that public artworks are designed as representative of the locations and communities they stand in, art designed to show the face and feelings of those around them. This is exemplified by Caroline Levine, in the introduction to her 2002 article Paradoxes in Public Art, as art to show ‘national edification, identity and pride’[2]. However, sweeping depictions of people, their history and tastes forces a difficult question: can art be representative of all in a community? This is especially controversial as public art is made, on large, by artists not from that community themselves, thus can an “outsider” truly give a representative face to a location?

Similarly the notion of public works being “for the people” is not as straightforward as it may seem. Hanus’s phrasing suggests public art is a gift to the public, but indeed not all gifts are wanted. Renowned academic Miwon Kwon calls this ‘art’s great myth; the presumption that it is all “good” and “everybody wants it”’[3]. It is inherent to public artworks that they are accessible and visible to the public. Created for, mostly, pre-existing community spaces and specific locational contexts, their sites mark them as unavoidable for the general populace. Unlike a private gallery space, they demand attention our city’s squares, by public highways and even on London’s Underground network. This art “for the people”, as John Tulsa puts it, ‘in our space’[4], is heavily marred by issues of who wants and who asks for public art? As the answer here is largely city planners or artists, not the locals themselves, this can impact profoundly on the ownership, meaning and acceptance of the final piece.

Conversely, the phrase “by the people” highlights the importance of context and community understanding of a work in forming artistic meaning and its place within the local civic imagination. As Marcel Duchamp emphasised in his 1957 speech to the American Federation of Artists, there is a responsibility in the spectator to contribute to the creative act and form the prosperity of the work[5]. This notion that art is nothing without its audience indicates a fracture in the conventional notions of authorship and artistic intent[6] as works are mediated through the audience, their thoughts, tastes and even location. With this multiplicity in viewpoints public art must face an underlying issue: who ultimately is the author of its meaning?

From Hanus’s rallying cry, then, we can see public artworks are negotiated through multiple perspectives. The artist/designer, the city planner[7], the media and public all having a say in what the piece will eventually be seen as. Indeed public art is not a cut and dry subject in this matter, an artist’s understanding of the community he/she is creating for being as subjective as the audience’s response to the work. This is especially evident when what the people of an area stand for and are affected by is sometimes so different from the original intent the proposed meaning of a piece can completely change upon its creation.

Yet, equally this is one of the few art forms that outline the specific intent of the work before its creation. Due to their impact and effect on the physical public domain of a specific area, these artworks are necessarily unveiled after months of consultations and assertions of meaning and purpose – the exact artistic objective of the works being outlined in a bid to gain local support for the piece during the planning process.  It is therefore within this complex interfacing that issues of authorial intent, community acceptance, contextual understanding, content, and time frame come to a head: as what truly constitutes meaning in public art?


 Part One:

Antony GormleyThe Angel of the North

 Roland Bathes’, now iconic, 1968 essay The Death of the Author attacks issues of creation and intent head on, disputing the neo-theological  image of an ‘Author-God’[8] as omnipotent and omnipresent in the very fabric of his creations. Placing authors from high-literature, such as Balzac, alongside artists, such as Van Gogh[9], Barthes uses the purposefully capitalized term ‘Author’ as a catch all title for creatives, forming a near-mythicized name and character to replace the varied job descriptions from artistic society. Balzac and Van Gogh becoming in very theological terms Authors, Gods or Creators only for Barthes to suggest, in a somewhat Nietzschean way, that these Gods are dead. Barthes’s text disputes the critical concept of reading histories of an author/artist to understand their products. Using the metaphorical image of ‘the antecedence a father maintains with his child’[10] Barthes suggests pre-existing a work, even physically creating it, does not give you a unique insight into what the work means. The performativity of writing or reading the text places it temporally in the here and now for ‘it is language that speaks, not the author’[11] and that even language and phrasing do not set in stone definitive meaning. Ultimately ‘a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author’[12].

To continue then to analyse Barthes’ repudiation of the ‘theological’[13] meaning (‘the “message” of the Author[artist]-God’[14]) the distinction between prescribed artistic intention and real audience understanding must be explored. This is somewhat easiest understood through the highly public and community orientated role of site specific artworks. Due to their direct visibility in physical public domain of a specific area, these artworks are most affected by the months of consultations and manifesto-esque assertions of meaning and intent. This allows planning regulators and local councils to use outlines of exact artistic purpose to proliferate assumptions of artistic meaning through the media in an attempt to gain local support for the work during the planning process. However these dogmatic notions of meaning, distinctly analogous with the ‘theological’ proclamations Barthes directly argues against, are rarely seen to stick, the voice of the local community frequently growing and even changing the believed “truth” behind the works themselves.

Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, 1998, [Image 1 in Notes] is one such perfect example of this relationship between authorial intent and, as Barthes’ puts it, the reader in whom ‘all the paths [meanings] of which the text is constituted meet’[15]. Gormley, upon the work’s unveiling was widely quoted as saying ‘The angel has three functions – firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future… and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears’[16] – a clear manifesto of his subjective understanding of his own creation. 15 years on, however, local memories and writing about the work strike some similar, but mostly highly different, notes. The most noticeable new association with the piece is the Gateshead area’s proud history of shipbuilding, ignored by Gormley in his explanations but now frequently associated with the work: ‘the ribbing is the hull of a ship, the beaming that held up our industry visually represented in our landmark’[17], reads one local piece of criticism. The image of the ship is now seen as being directly inbuilt into the work, yet was not intended by the artist – Barthes notion of the audience’s combining their own ‘multiplicity’[18] of culture and context is therefore demonstrated through this seemingly simple artwork.

Noticeably then, the audience is reading an extra, unintended, connoted meaning through the visual symbolism denoted in the work. This is contrasted, however, with the vast public critical response that ignores Gormley’s ‘grasp hold of the future’ for the notion of The Angel as an ‘image of tradition’[19], ‘in memoriam for the working class communities of the North East’[20]. Here the local community is seen to remove part of Gormley’s supposed meaning for the piece. Linguistic and social philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argues, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, for meaning to come into effect it must be either a) ‘shared by all’ or b) ‘shared by some’[21] – as we can see, by the eschewing of an Author-God intention, the weight of The Angel comes from a community understanding of the piece based entirely in the contextual understanding shared by a the local people.

 To understand this principle of social acceptance a simple example can be drawn: you draw a “smiley face” on a piece of paper and tell people, and even personally believe, it means sadness however others around you read it and agree that is represents happiness and thus its connoted meaning will be happiness. Your personal (visual) language is meaningless unless corroborated with others in a group and understanding is agreed upon as a whole. It is this principle that supports the rejection of Author-God theological meaning as, unless validated by others in a community, it is not representative of the “truth” of the piece. Indeed a community can verify a meaning (highly dependent on their cultural backgrounds) that is taken on as the real intention of the work that directly contradicts the purported meaning of the private language of the artist. It is the readers who create the truth of a piece of public art over the author – even if sometimes these associations can overlap.

However, nowhere is it said that there can only be one truth an artwork represents. The Death of the Author, by suggesting the import of the reader in creating meaning, allows for multiple understandings of a text as each potential audience approaches it from their own particular cultural background. This is expanded by Barthes in The Rhetoric of the Image as he finds ‘the variation in readings is not anarchic’, suggesting a set guide of principles that we all bring to a text, ‘practical, national, cultural, aesthetic’[22]. For Barthes this collection of principles forms a personal visual language (‘a person’s ideolect[23]) which is then formed onto a societal level a wider language of collected ‘ideolects, lexicons and sub-codes’[24].

Indeed for Wittgenstein the multiplicity of available viewpoints for a text (whether literary or visual) interests him greatly as the interplay between private and communal language is, he believes, integral for growth. For, human beings can see the same object as having many connoted meanings and it is through sharing private readings that communal understanding grows. In terms of the “smiley face” analogy, on one level the community views it as representing happiness but also it can be read as sarcastic or ironic if the group is educated to view it that way too.  These somewhat contradictory notions of happiness and sarcasm existing within the text simultaneously but the chosen meaning being the one the group at that specific time is most directed towards. In art, as with society, this directing force is frequently the media, but can also be friends or educational establishments.

Wittgenstein lays this down in very simple terms: ‘I contemplate a face and am then shown its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect’’[25]. This theory helps explain the ship-building/Angel of the North relationship as a viewer has used their personal cultural understanding to read the ribbing on the angel as symbolic of a the shipbuilding industry due to some unmistakably close aesthetic similarities between the two. By highlighting this aspect, and the repetition of this perceived relationship in the local media[26], it has become part of the correct communal terminology around the piece. Community understanding, therefore, is constantly in a place to change and grow as – especially in this case, due to the change in rhetoric being rooted in the local history of the North East – new aspects and new associations can constantly be produced.

Indeed this has been key to The Angel of the North’s ability to remain an important visual symbol for the people of the North East, as over time its relationship with the public imagination has grown and changed. This change of public perception can be tracked over the 15 years since The Angel’s erection but perhaps it’s most evident period of change is the initial time around The Angel of the North’s proposal and first year after its creation. ‘[Gateshead’s Angel] It’s like drinking your tea with your little finger out’[27] is the rather cutting statement, about misplaced pretention, given by Local Liberal Councilor Kathy King upon the plans being released for Gormley’s statue in 1996; the general tone in the Newcastle-Gateshead area at the time being one of imposition and distrust. As though the artwork being thrust on the local people by city planners was a strategic move, only to distract from the major unemployment in this working class area by building a “middle-class” landmark by an artist who is not from and does not understand the local community. Indeed the phrase “southern”, intended as an insult about the outsider-status of both Gormley[28] and The Angel, appeared many times in protests around The Angel of the North’s construction[29].

However, in very stark comparison, by 1998 local legend, Footballer Alan Shearer declares the work ‘a great symbol for the North East’[30]. This altering in public attitudes can be aligned, as Cameron Cartier does in his text The Practice of Public Art, with a single moment of appropriation with the work’s meaning changing as new associations are created within the public consciousness.

In 1998, just after The Angel of the North was unveiled, ‘a giant Newcastle United Football jersey was draped over the piece in a midnight guerrilla action by local team supporters’ which, according to Cartier, ‘seemed to signal a turning point in the emotional response to the piece’[31]. This event indeed made a deep impact on the public understanding of this landmark, however Cartier’s position as an outsider[32] means the import of this event is somewhat missed in his brief mention of the local action. Ultimately it is in this event that the community understanding of the piece, and the place in the community imagination the work now stands, changed, regardless of what Gormley believed The Angel to be. By aligning the statue with Newcastle Magpies’ best ever goal scorer and in fact a member of the local working-class community who went on to play for England, this moment of guerrilla action realigned the angel from “middle-class”, “avant-garde” art to a stoic reminder of the strength and possibilities for the working-class community the statue stands in. The number 9 shirt placed on the statue, during Newcastle United’s away at Wembley Stadium, made the piece an image of community support and fortitude. Regardless of local coal-mining sites or the ‘move towards the information age’[33], community understanding and acceptance of The Angel of the North comes from locals finding new aspects in the work. The meaning of the piece becoming something well outside and beyond the hands of Antony Gormley, the “Artist-God”.

This changing of perspective on definitive meaning of artworks relates back to Barthes afore mentioned temporality of an artwork. As Barthes puts it ‘every text is eternally written here and now’[34] as it in the performative action of reading a text that the meaning it imparts is constituted. The artwork makes sense only in the here and now through the mind of and associations made by the reader. No text, according to this principle, is complete until it is read by the audience and even as the same reader comes back to the same text at a much later date it is rewritten for/by them due to their change in situation. Wittgenstein uses tense within Philosophical Investigations to stress this notion of changing temporality of art: ‘Now I am seeing it as a fork… Now I am seeing it as…’[35]. Simply summarised by Wittgenstein, there is no one true image only what we see what we look at it and that is destined to change as we do – ‘we interpret it as we see it and see it as we interpret it’[36]. Therefore it can be said, even by people who were disparaging of The Angel of the North when it was first built, that it is symbolic of local strength now, just as when they read the work as an imposition or insult it was.

This interplay is stressed by Marcel Duchamp in The Creative Act as not only the meaning but the ‘posterity’ of an artwork, its place in history, is down to the relationship of ‘the poles of creation’[37]: ‘The artist may shout from all the rooftops that his is a genius; he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of art history’[38]. Duchamp was most specifically talking about the process of his ready-made art of found objects and their transformation into art by him (as the artist and viewer) and then the public who visit gallery spaces, yet the principles of spectatorship and understanding art holds many strong parallels with the philosophy of Barthes and Wittgenstein. Again using religious terminology Duchamp talks of the ‘actual transubstantiation’[39] of a work when it leaves the hands of an artist and into the view of the spectator. Yet, it is interesting to note that in Duchamp’s use of quasi-Christian language is to place the power of creation into the process of viewing; as though Barthes’ killing the Author-God leaves the door open for the viewer deity instead.

For Barthes a text can only exist in the moment of viewing which leaves the image of a single creator as obsolete. Antony Gormley may have designed The Angel and made assertions of its meaning, all of which are what he was reading his own piece as. But this cannot be the definitive meaning of the work, as the meaning and understanding of The Angel of the North, as with any artwork, changes upon every viewing of it. Thus no authorial intent can stick if artistic truth is constantly in flux. However, not all readings even become part of the cultural truth of the work as personal meaning exists within private language discourse and it is only when readings are shared and aligned with others can they be seen as actually part of the mass meaning of the piece. But, as private readings change so will eventually community understanding and therefore authorial content of a work. To negotiate through the many levels of meaning in works like Antony Gormley’s The Angel of the North is to accept that the creator is Gormley, the local council, the press, guerrilla artists, and the local people. The Angel of the North, as with any piece of public art work, can only be understood in a state of constant evolution.

Part Two:

Mark Wallinger – Labyrinth 

So far I have been using the terminology of “reading” artworks, a phrase used prominently in Roland Barthes The Photographic Message: ‘[meaning is] not only perceived, received, it is read’[40]. By aligning language and art in this way it would be easy to assume there is an innate connotation inherent in a work of art communicated through the combination of visual components[41]. However, as Structuralist Ferdinand Saussure argues in A Course in General Linguistics, 1916, there is no definitive truth in a visual component just as there is not definitive meaning of a word – only a meaning that is contextually placed upon it.

Wittgenstein claimed ‘language is laid across reality like a ruler’[42], the implication being language (or visual language) is not inherent but a manmade imposition on reality to help contain, understand and represent it. This notion is mirrored in the work of Saussure who defined the arbitrary relationship of language and meaning. Saussure saw language as being made up of a series of signs which were in turn made up of the signifiant (concept) and signifié (sound image) [43] and yet claimed this as convention not truth: ‘the nature of the sign that is agreed upon does not matter[44]’. To see an image of a tree and think the word tree (or vice versa) is a process of denotation that occurs every time you read or view an image but does not necessarily reveal any empirical truth. The sound-image “tree” has nothing to do with the reality of a tree and even the image seen is entirely conceptual as the image is representative of a non-existent imaginary version of a tree.

Yet we still read an image of a tree to mean tree and not, say, onion. This is because the language of signs is ‘a language of differences… without positive terms’[45] – you can read an image as a tree because it is not a table or an onion or anything else. As John Berger put it in Ways of Seeing ‘we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things’[46] and it is this principle that allows us to read signs. Your understanding and knowledge is part of your personal history (and communal understanding as previously explored) and thus ‘whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system of differences’[47]. It therefore follows that looking at an image we read it based on our own understanding of the artistic-linguistic system – looking for signs we understand and can produce some form of “meaning from”.

This way of reading art is easily seen though the public art of Mark Wallinger for Art on the Underground. Marking the 150th anniversary of The London Underground in 2013, Wallinger has been commissioned to produce a single artwork for every London tube stop, calling this series Labyrinth. To read #232 (Green Park) [Image 2 in Notes] is to compare the image with every image in your memory to explain with the graphic lines represent. The case here being that #232 is in fact another image of a tree represented in a labyrinth form; the vertical black line in the centre being the trunk, the curved lines representing branches and the space of foliage. As exhibitions critic Ellen Stone puts it ‘[the key to the] commission as a whole, is to decipher the visual clues in each piece – #232 (Green Park) is a tree, #142 (Bank) a safe’[48].

Next to take #101 (Westminster) [Image 3 in Notes], as for a local the visual language can appear quite specific. Whilst attending a private view for the initial ten pieces of Wallinger’s commission I took the opportunity to take some vox populi interviews with many of the galley goers and #101 (Westminster) was the piece most felt they had read correctly: ‘The middle is the rose window at Westminster Abbey’[49] being the most frequent response. However, just under a month later #209 (Archway) [Image 4 in Notes] was unveiled and bore some very stark similarities. The supposed visual representation of the rose window of Westminster Abbey, an apparently clear sign for Westminster, is reused in a starkly different location. Suggesting the visual sign was not intended in such a way by Wallinger. The apparently obvious image of the Rose Windows in fact being just a leap of association made by the reader, not a product of the “Author-God”. Indicating that it is not just viewing the surface signs that allow us to read the work but other influencing factors must be in effect when we read an image.

It is clear from Wallinger’s work that context plays an integral role in producing meaning. The location the works are literally placed at making a stark mark on how they are read. To know #232 is at Green Park suggests the outside, greenery and indeed trees, however was the piece to be placed at, say, Bank station this clear reading of a tree may never have appeared. Through the placement of the works Wallinger and Art on the Underground produce meaning of the piece beyond the visual signs of the image itself. As Walter De Maria said of his 1977 public art piece, Lighting Field, ‘the land is not the setting for the work but part of the work’[50].

 Indeed by placing these artworks in the public tube stations many visual similarities come to a head that may not have been apparent out of context. The locations of the pieces forcing the viewer to ‘notice an aspect’[51] of the work that they would not have previously seen. Asking an artist from outside of London about #101 without revealing the title or location of the works came back with images of ‘architectural mazes’[52] – a simple and literal reading of the material which is on the most basic level a map of a non-existent labyrinth. Yet after revealing the location of the work the interviewee read the circular form of the labyrinth as the Edward Johnston roundel used at every underground station [Image 5 in Notes]. The meaning of the work, after location was revealed, becoming clearly to do with the London transport system. The language of the work shifting to reveal different meaning as context is revealed. The meaning of the work therefore changes as the context the piece is encountered. Wallinger may, or may not, have intended this link to the graphic signage on the London underground but the audience reads it this way due to the context of the pieces and therefore it is appropriated as part of the meaning of the piece.

The tile of the series works in much the same way as its context as the communal understanding of the term “labyrinth” and its cultural implications weigh down upon how a piece is read. Just as the term ‘The Gateshead Flasher’[53], widely used in media after The Angel of the North’s construction, alters how you see the work so does the chosen title for the work force you to read it in specific ways. John Berger, when describing the impact of language on art, clamed ‘the image now illustrates the sentence’[54] when you place an image next to words, however I find this should be extended to include works titles too. The term “labyrinth” has certain cultural connotations depending on your own personal background: it suggests Greek mythology, mazes, tedium, fear and even the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, 1980, depending on your personal knowledge and culture. Wallinger’s work therefore can be seen as meaning ‘the maze-like modern city’[55] or, perhaps, ‘a route reminiscent of the tube traveller’s journey’[56] for ‘the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe’[57]. The meaning of a piece being dependent on what signs we pick up on, and what those signs denote to us on a personal level, not some supposed intrinsic meaning given by the artist.

How many people will encounter Wallinger’s series will not be in context of their location however, but rather as prolific commission that is shown heavily in the media[58], therefore the impact of language on the piece is further stressed. A clear example of this is to take the representation of #63 (Embankment) from which places the image of the plaque next to the phrase ‘the underground has been part of my life since childhood’[59]. After reading this line, as Berger believes, it is now near impossible to remove the image from the context of it. The uneven, curved lines of the centre of the piece – perceived by some as ‘the waves of the river hitting the embankment’[60] – taking on a distinctly childish light when encountered through the mediation of text. The quote, although having little (the quote is originally taken from the Art on the Underground website to talk about why Wallinger agreed to the project[61]) to do with the chosen image has heavily impacted upon it. Berger calls this ‘verbal authority’[62] as images are pitted against ‘all the other verbal information being continually transmitted’[63]. The implication being, for Berger, that in the mind of the audience linguistic information takes precedence over visual communication and therefore, importantly, visual works (even public art) will constantly have their meaning mediated by the text that surrounds them.

Indeed the issue of context within the media is further stressed by Berger as he sees each time an image is reproduced it becomes further removed from the ‘original independent meaning’[64]. For Berger, #232, for example, exists as an original in Green Park underground station – its meaning and significance being mediated through its placement and audience there – however the reproduction online is not the same artwork. It may be an exact representation of the original however its meaning and truth comes only through its audience as a reproduction. Part of the copy version’s meaning is as a reminder of the original but it is a separate work with a separate understanding simply by its removal from the original. In a similar vein to René Magritte’s Treachery of Images, 1929, [Image 6 in Notes] a representation is precisely that, just a representation.

However these reproductions impact the meaning of the original work just as they take from it. We read a reproduction in a newspaper through the context of the paper and if we then happen upon the original we read the original through the lens of having already seen a reproduction. The thoughts and implications of the previously seen text altering how we view Wallinger’s work in the present. Visual language is dependent of previous experience and learnt knowledge but the high profile nature of public art means much of this knowledge is taught to the viewer well before they encounter the work.

To read and understand an artwork then is to take from your own personal history and negotiate the visual signs of the piece to come to a meaning you understand. However this meaning is mediated through many layers of context. There is the context of your own personal background, the context of the location you view the work in, the verbal context of the work’s title and even the context of the media response to the piece. And, just like with the question of authorship, the meaning produced by the context is in a constant state of change as more writing about and more reproductions of an artwork are produced.

Part Three:

Elmgreen and Dragset – It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry

Academic and arts writer Shannon Jackson highlights, in her book Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, the increasing ‘social turn in contemporary art’[65]. The term “social” having a duel meaning for Jackson: as both the ‘social practice of… experimental theatre and performance studies’[66] (highlighting the artist/audience interaction inherent in performing works live) and the growing ‘interest in explicit forms of political charge’[67] in contemporary art. This interest in social art is becoming more and more relevant in the world of public art with many major temporary public art commissions engaging with performance – this includes, for example, Antony Gormley’s One and Ather, 2009, part of the Trafalgar Square Forth Plinth Project, and, the work I will be closely examining here, Elmgreen and Dragset’s It’s Never too Late to Say Sorry, 2011, performed in Rotterdam.

This piece conforms perfectly with Jackson’s understanding of a social work as the physicality of every day, for a year, having someone walk down the Coolsingel, one of the busiest streets in Rotterdam, unlock a case, remove a speaker and proclaim “it is never too late to say sorry” is undoubtedly ‘engagement with the encumbrances of theatricality’[68]. On top of this the choice of statement and location, outside Rotterdam City Hall, is a definite interaction with politics and history. It is understandable, then, that the duo, Elmgreen and Draget, are renowned for ‘rais[ing] issues around social models and social spaces, and prompt[ing] a re-thinking of the status quo’[69]. Much art can be seen as political, however, public art, in its very nature is intrinsically related to issues of politics. Paul Simpson, in Street Perfromance and the City, highlights the political implications of art in the public domain through mapping social revolutions as street action: ‘The streets are a terrain of social encounters and political protest… revolutions entail talking on the street’[70].

The location of the art becomes a part of its political weight. But this import is not only to do with the physical local of an artwork but intrinsic to the verbal location of a piece in the way we write and talk about it. The terminology I have been using throughout my work has inherently political tones if used in certain ways. Tom Finkelpearl uses the introduction to his work Dialogues in Public Art to examine the language of public art criticism and he notes, ‘the term “public” is associated with the lower classes… as opposed to the word “private” which is associated with privilege’[71]. By placing or performing public art in its, necessarily, highly visible place the works become in their nature anti-exclusionary. A close proximity, and in some cases inclusion, of the audience engages on a very political level. John Tusa anecdotally talks about the inclusion felt when viewing public art as compared to the museum as thus: ‘the convention of an art gallery is that the work is entitled to be there and your right to question it is correspondingly limited. But in the street where you live, the supermarket where you shop, the square where you sit, you have a right to state an opinion’[72]. The mere choice of making artwork “public art” is a move towards accepting a wide audience and charging and meaning of the work politically.

Touched on briefly by Tusa, public art is through its location opposed to gallery art –affected by, why Sventlana Alpers calls, ‘the museum effect’[73]. By choosing a museum or gallery to place work in, artists and curators can mediate and influence the context works are seen in. In return for this the audience knows what to expect and, importantly, how to read a work. Yet public art offers no much chance to control meaning as artists, curators, collectors and the even the council cannot control the entirety of the site. They cannot stop accidents, graffiti, protests – in summary the general public – from existing and engaging with artworks on their own level. Attempting to remove the museum effect is to give a chance to read the own meanings to the audience as they both create the context and read from it.

Yet, the ‘museum effect’ cannot be fully removed from any artwork as people can and will travel to view pieces that interest them – Cher Krause Knight calling this ‘public art pilgrimage’[74]. During It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry’s run crowds would routinely gather at midday to see the performance happen (as evident in Image 7, Notes). This is an audience who would have known about the work, its purported meaning (from the press and Rotterdam Art Council’s promotion of the work) and come to see this “event”. The meaning of the work for this subsection of the audience is thus largely pre-prescribed. Therefore some of their potential interaction with the piece is removed due to the context of their viewership.

It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, as public art, on the other hand, also has a unintentional (on the part of the spectator) audience. Knight defines this group as ‘people usually encounter public art by accident’ which, to follow her definition, is the primary audience for public art as ‘one rarely goes to a subway station for an art experienced. But rather happens upon it while waiting for a train’[75]. Called simply by Harriet Senie, in Baboons, Pet Rocks and Bomb Threats: Public Art and Public Perception, ‘involuntary audience’[76] this sub sect of the audience is not primed by the “museum effect” to know what to expect and therefore placed in a position to read the work from a detached and personal viewpoint.

When interviewed for Dazed Digital, an offshoot of Dazed and Confused Magazine, about Never too Late Elmgreen and Dragset focused much of their explanation of the piece on the multiple perspectives of this involuntary audience member: ‘for passers-by they will each make up their own personal interpretation of that, maybe they have been very rude to their Mum or girlfriend and think that they get a reminder to say wow, maybe I should say sorry…’[77]. Here the artists acknowledge the power of the individual subjectivity in producing meaning in art, highlighting the individual audience member as the creator of meaning in the work. It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry places the public at the heart of the work, whilst the work is placed in the public domain.

The final section of the audience Elmgreen and Dragset openly aim to address with It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry is a subsection of the involuntary audience whom they target as they aim their piece at the politicians in Rotterdam’s City Hall. Dragset has been quoted as saying ‘they will hear it every day at twelve o’clock exactly and maybe one day they will think about their politics’[78], indicating the purposeful use of context by the author to mediate the meaning of the work. Although in a public space the choice of the Coolsingel turns the artwork towards a target audience. This group may not purposefully engage with the art but through the high visibility and public engagement to the piece they become absorbed into the context and readable meaning of the work. The artist’s here, with help from the Art Council’s planners, retains some control of the artwork’s meaning by the control of location. The audience ultimately reads the artwork and its surroundings but the overtly political local means the work cannot be read without knowledge of the political intentions. What these intentions are read as (what is needed to be apologised for) however, is still open for individual contemplation of meaning. On top of this, the political audience sitting in City Hall will undoubtedly be aware that the work, though its location is directed at them and their understanding of the work will be mediated accordingly.

To read Elmgreen and Dragset’s work is dependent on what time of day the work is approached – unless viewed around midday the majority of the time the piece is inert and sculptural. The piece is a plinth-like glass case holding the megaphone (for use in the midday performances). Engaging with the signs and symbols of contemporary society and consumer culture the case surrounding the megaphone is, as described by Sculpture International Rotterdam, ‘as similar to any found in the city’s retailers’[79]. The megaphone’s symbolism of the political voice is easy to read from the work and its contexts. Yet it is the promise of what the piece can be that holds it together, reading the object as a still part of an overall performative act.

 Hans Ulrich Obrist, in Performative Constructions, aligns the promise of potential action with the impact of the action. He finds almost any cultural object as performative in a potential sense. An object that could produce an action, for Obrist, is read as though it has and will produce that action. For example, ‘If you take the coffee pot, its waiting for us to make coffee in it … the objects are not totally apart from the performances we’re doing. It’s all part of the same system’[80]. To apply Obrist’s reading to It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry is to see the megaphone as a sign of potential action, read by the audience as though it is being used, although proportionately is rarely is. The context of the audience knowing what the megaphone is and where it is located being enough for the audience to infer meaning without seeing the key to the artwork.

Obrist’s point, although interesting, does not do works like It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry justice as it is in the true performativity of the piece that Elmgreen and Dragset’s work shines as public art. The line itself “it’s never too late to say sorry” having multiple impacts (as previously explored) though the complex language use it demonstrates. The phrase at first seems like a statement of fact, a ‘costative’[81], that is a true or false and understandable to the audience to read what they want from it – a mere ‘saying’[82]. However to read Elmgreen and Dragset’s explanation of the work would indicate the phrase is far more than that: ‘the beauty of it is that these guys (who perform the act) have a job, a steady income paid for by the city just to make Rotterdam free of guilt[83] (stress my own). Although not an ‘explicit performative’[84] (for example “I order you to apologise” which in the act of speech is also the act of making an order) “it’s never too late to say sorry” according to Elmgreen is a performative action to relieve the guilt of the city.

This ‘implicit performative’[85] suggests the city is apologising through its speech whilst simultaneously ordering the people of Rotterdam to apologise for any ills. The meaning of the statement being dependent on the audience and how they choose to receive the statement, as much of the strength of peformative language is in the context it is received. “Sorry” is a performative as it is both the speech act of apologising and the apology and the use of this verb allows the audience to read the statement as an apology for Rotterdam if they feel they have been affected by something that should be apologised for. Similarly if a member of the audience feels they have done something that should be apologised for the suggestion “it is never too late” allows the sentence to appear as something of an order prompting them to carry out the apology.

Elmgreen and Dragset’s work proves much of what I have been looking at through much of this essay as their performance public art straddles the line of authorial intent, context, city agreement and public understanding. The multiplicity of response to this work and the direct engagement with the public it produces (the use of sound means the reach of the piece is beyond that of visual contact with the piece) is what the practice of public art is about. Meaning is negotiated in this piece through layers of contact and political thought to produce a work that though its public placing builds a truly effectual relationship with the audience is addresses. Shannon Jackson’s term ‘the social turn’ is an interesting one but public art by its very nature and site must be social in some respect – open to and directly addressing the public, the meaning of a public art piece relies heavily on audience engagement.

Negotiating Meaning

Public artworks are complex and difficult texts to read. Their values and purposes being so specific to the person viewing them and yet inherently communal and social due to the visibility of the works, their meaning is a constant flux. This intricate interfacing between artist, community, council and media produce works that can be representative of one person and somehow representative of everyone.

The multiplicity of viewpoints needed to create meaning in public art mean that in reproduction or even in conversation with a friend, in the words of critic Fred Morton, ‘the parergon [the secondary/by-product of a work] cannot be strictly be divided from the ergon’[86]. Public artworks have meaning outside and beyond the original piece but yet still this is not separate but rather part of the homogenous whole of the original piece. The context of reading the work (in terms of location and issues such as media input) adding layers to its truth that the artist could never envisage themselves. A public artwork being made by, as Paul Simpson describes it, ‘everyday life… day to day living… everydayness… alienatedness… [public art is] a fertile soil that holds the possibility for something to emerge’[87].

In fact with public art the notion of artistic intent becomes near impossible. Creating “art for the people” can only stand for creating artworks for a public platform. An artist may have an idea of what the local area stands for but due to meaning being so intrinsically derived from the viewing audience this notion of representing an area is not in their hands. An artist from outside a community can produce artworks but if the community builds their own understanding of what the piece means they build the own representative face of the artwork – not the artist.

Building on this though, it is not to say all public artworks do work. Just as The Angel of the North was not immediately located in the hearts of the North East community so can other public artworks miss the point. Famously Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, 1979, commissioned by The General Service’s Administration Arts in Architecture Program for Foley Federal Plaza, Manhattan, New York, is one such example of a “failed” piece of public art. This piece was never accepted into the consciousness of the community, complaints about its location even leading to enough public outcry for a high-profile court case and eventual removal. Evidence then, that though communities can change to enjoy a piece, the public consciousness can also read an artwork as impractical or just ugly – as many thought Serra’s work was[88].

Duchamp asked if art was indeed art without an audience[89] and it follows therefore to question if public art counts as public art if disliked by the people? The context of the piece can impart meaning onto a work but only when being read by a viewer. As much as the general public may not be asking outright for public artworks, it is integral to the survival of public art that they are viewed and incorporated into the public consciousness for ultimately is not city planners or artists, but the locals themselves, who are owners, and producers of meaning and acceptance of the final piece.

But how best to summarise these issues of authorial intent, community acceptance, contextual understanding, content, and time frame that negotiate meaning in public art? Fundamentally, Julie Hanus is right to think of it all as:

Public Art of the People, for the People, by the People[90]

[1] Julie Hanus “Public Art for the People” UTNE Reader  visited 20/03/2013

[2] Caroline Levine “The Paradox of Public Art: Democratic Space, The Avant-Garde, and Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc”, Philosophy & Geography Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002 –

[3] Miwon Kwon as quoted by Cher Krause Knight in the Preface to Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism (New York: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008) Kindle Edition

[4] John Tusa “Art in Public Spaces Should be Decided by the People”, The Observer, 11/05/2008

[5] Marcel Duchamp “The Creative Act: A Talk given to The American Federation of Artists, 1957”, printed in ART-news, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Summer 1957)

[6] What Roland Barthes describes as ‘the message of the “Author-God”’*

* Roland Barthes “Death of the Author”, Image, Music Text trans. Stephen Heath (London, Fontana   Press, 1977) Page 146

[7] If the press is to be believed then this interference from committees can even go as far as altering what the final image of a work will be – altering The Meeting Place, at St. Pancras, to remove the “inappropriate” image of a couple kissing to become an embrace, changing the artwork completely.*          *           visited   20/03/2013

[8] Roland Barthes “Death of the Author”, Image, Music Text trans. Stephen Heath (London, Fontana Press, 1977) Page 146

[9] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, Page 143

[10] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, Page 145

[11] Ibid

[12] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, Page 148

[13] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, Page 146

[14] Ibid

[15] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, Page 148

[16] Antony Gormley, 1998, quoted by Newcastle Gateshead Council visited 12/02/2012

[17] Quoted from @itvtynetees Twitter feed “In Celebration of 15 years of the Angel of the North” visited 25/01/2013

[18] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, Page 148

[19] M. Ports Mr Port’s Thoughts: The Angel of the North visited 25/01/2013

[20] Quoted from @itvtynetees Twitter feed “In Celebration of 15 years of the Angel of the North” visited 25/01/2013

[21] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, quoted by Giles Fraser in “Investigating Wittgenstein”, The Guardian 08/02/2010 –

[22] Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of Images”, Image, Music, Text, tans. Stephen Heath (London, Fontana Press, 1977) Page 46

[23] Roland Barthes, The Rhetoric of Images, Page 47

[24] Ibid

[25] Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishing, 1958) Page 100

[26] I first came across the shipbuilding “meaning” through the ITV Tyne Tees Twitter account: visited 25/01/2013

[27] Andy Beckett “The Angel with a Dirty Face”, The Independent, 28/06/1996

[28] Although Gormley was born in Yorkshire and a Northerner by many standards

[29] Andy Beckett, 28/06/1996

[30] ‘Secrets of the Shearer Shirt on Angel Revealed’ The Evening Chronicle 25/04/2008   viewed 18/03/2013

[31] Cameron Cartiere The Practice of Public Art eds. Cameron Cartiere & Shelly Willis (New York: Routledge, 2008) Page 16

[32] As an American who is not au-fait with footballing terms, let alone the emotional impact of the sport in working class communities in the North East of England.

[33] Antony Gormley, 1996, quoted by Newcastle Gateshead Council : visited 12/04/2013

[34] Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, Page 145

[35] Wittgenstein, 1958, Page 101

[36] Wittgenstein, 1958, Page 100

[37] Marcel Duchamp “The Creative Act: A Talk given to The American Federation of Artists, 1957”, printed in ART-news, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Summer 1957)

[38] Ibid

[39] Ibid

[40] Roland Barthes, “Photographic Message”, Image, Music, Text tans. Stephen Heath (London, Fontana Press, 1977) Page 19

[41] Analogous perhaps to “original language” spoken by Adam in which words ‘revealed the truth’ of things: Genesis 2:18-23 King James Bible

[42] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, quoted by Giles Fraser in “Investigating Wittgenstein”, The Guardian 08/02/2010 –

[43] For a clear diagram of this concept see: Ferdinand de Saussure A Course in General Linguistics eds. Charles Bally & Albert Sechenhaye trans. Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1915) Page 67

[46] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: Penguin Publishers, 1973), Page 9

[48] Ellen Stone Mark Wallinger: The Underground at Anthony Reynolds Gallery 15/03/2013 visited 15/03/2013

[49] Chad Stubbs, Personal Interview. 14/03/2013

[50] Walter De Maria on Lightning Field quoted in Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism (New York: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008) Kindle Edition

[51] Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishing, 1958) Page 100

[52] Ann-Marie Moorland, Personal Interview, 17/03/2013

[53] As quoted by Paul McCann, “From the Man Who Made The ‘Gateshead Flasher’, A ‘Millenium Man’ For the Dome”, The Independent 05/10/1999 visited 20/03/2013

[54] John Berger, 1973, Page 28

[55] Ellen Stone Mark Wallinger: The Underground at Anthony Reynolds Gallery 15/03/2013 visited 15/03/2013

[56] Transport For London Art on the Underground Information visited 13/04/2013

[57] John Berger, 1973, Page 8

[58] A cross section of the pieces was put up on The Guardian website ( the same day as The Culture Show featured Wallinger’s work for example.

[60] Ellen Stone Mark Wallinger: The Underground at Anthony Reynolds Gallery 15/03/2013 visited 15/03/2013

[61] Transport For London Art on the Underground Information visited 13/04/2013

[62] Berger, 1973, Page 28

[63] Ibid

[64] Berger, 1973, Page 28

[65] Shannon Jackson Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011) Kindle Edition

[66] ibid

[67] ibid

[68] Ibid

[69] Victoria Miro Gallery on Elmgreen & Dragset visited 12/04/2013

[70] Paul Simpson “Street Performance and the City: Public Space, Sociality, and Intervening in the Every Day” from Space and Culture 14(4) visited 20/04/2013 Page 418

[71] Tom Finkelpearl Dialogues in Public Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001) Page X

[72] John Tusa “Art in Public Spaces Should be Decided by the People”, The Observer, 11/05/2008 visited 12/04/2013

[73] Sventlana Alpers The Museum as a Way of Seeing visited 13/04/2013

[74] Cher Krause Knight Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism (New York: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008) Kindle Edition

[75] From “This is Special, I am Special”, Cher Krause Knight Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism (New York: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008) Kindle Edition

[76] Harriet Senie “Baboons, Pet Rocks and Bomb Threats: Public Art and Public Perception” from Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context and Controversy eds. Harriet F. Senie & Sally Webster (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998) Page 240

[77] Susanna Davies-Cook “Elmgreen and Dragset”, DazedDigital visited 12/04/2013

[78] ibid

[79] Sculpture International Rotterdam, It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, visited 16/04/2013

[80] Hans Ulrich Obrist Performative Constructions visited 14/04/2013

[81] J. Austin as quoted by John R. Searle, How Performatives Work,  visited 28/03/2013 Page 1

[82] John R. Searle, visited 28/03/2013 Page 2

[83] Susanna Davies-Cook, DazedDigital, visited 12/04/2013

[84] John R. Searle, visited 28/03/2013 Page 2

[85] Ibid

[86] Fred Moton, looking at the texts of Derrida and Kant, quoted by Shannon Jackson Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011) Kindle Edition

[87] Paul Simpson “Street Performance and the City: Public Space, Sociality, and Intervening in the Every Day” from Space and Culture 14(4) visited 20/04/2013 Page 417

[88] Caroline Levine “The Paradox of Public Art: Democratic Space, The Avant-Garde, and Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc”, Philosophy & Geography Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002 –

[89] Marcel Duchamp, Summer 1957

[90]  Julie Hanus “Public Art for the People” UTNE Reader  visited 20/03/2013


 Notes (Reference Image List)


Image 1 – Antony Gormley, The Angel of the North, 1998, Gateshead, visited 19/01/2013


Image 2 – Mark Wallinger, #232, 2013, Green Park Underground Station, visited 20/02/2013


Image 3 – Mark Wallinger, #101, 2013, Westminster Underground Station, visited 20/02/2013


Image 4 – Mark Wallinger, #209, 2013, Archway Underground Station, visited 20/02/2013


Image 6 – The Guardian Online, Art on the Underground: Mark Wallinger’s Designs in Pictures (Embankment), 2013, visited 14/02/2013


Image 7 – Elmgreen & Dragset, It’s Never too Late to Say Sorry [Plinth], 2012–977.html

 visited 13/04/2013


Image 8 – Elmgree & Dragset, It’s Never too Late to Say Sorry [Crowd at Performance], 2012, still from Youtube video visited 13/04/2013

emgreen & dragset crows


My essay “Creator, Context, Community: Negotiating Meaning in Public Art” has been published in an abridged form as part of a catalogue for Elmgreen & Dragset’s Munich exhibition, A Space Called Public: HOFFENTLICH ÖFFENTLICH.

Purchase a copy here.

For any enquiries into my writing please contact me at



  1. Pingback: Speaking Of Art – September 2013 » THE PAINTER'S TONGUE

  2. Pingback: A SPACE CALLED PUBLIC – My essay published by Elmgreen & Dragset | ELLEN ELIZABETH STONE.

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