London’s Fourth Plinth

For those who may not know, London’s Fourth Plinth is located in Trafalgar Square. The other three plinths, or platforms, contain sculptures of military officers: Henry Havelock, Charles James Napier, and King George IV. However, the fourth remained empty due to a lack of funding, unused for 150 years. That is until London’s Royal Society of the Arts developed the Fourth Plinth Project. The project maintains a revolving public art exhibit in order to celebrate, question, and engage with the world today through art-making. In fact, the Fourth Plinth hosts a series of commissioned artworks by world class artists and is the most talked about contemporary art prize in the UK. 

So, what is on exhibit now?

On March 28th, Michael Rakowitz’s “The Enemy Should Not Exist,” was unveiled. The work “depicts a re-creation of Lamassu, an Assyrian statue that stood in Iraq in the ancient city of Nineveh, on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul, until 2015 when the militant group destroyed it along with other irreplaceable works of ancient art.” The work is made of 10,500 recycled cans of syrup made from dates (dates being an important export of Iraq).

Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, stated: “One of the reasons we should be so proud is this piece of art is from an Iraqi American of Jewish faith to be displayed in the greatest city in the world … And the creation and installation of this piece of art is an act of resistance against the tyranny of religious fanaticism. It is an act of resistance against the acts of philistinism. But it is also a celebration of who we are as a city: confident in who we are, pluralistic, welcoming and diverse.”

From London: Artists as Citizens

Just returned from the “Reflective Conservatoire Conference: Artists as Citizens.” This inspiring, 4-day conference showcased, among other things, a variety of arts projects that illustrate how the arts do their good work.

In doing so, the conference asked the essential and age-old question: What do artists do? Undoubtedly, artists view the world in unique ways. And, through their artwork, help us confront our realities—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus, at the heart of this kind of work is the concept of “artistic citizenship” and being an “artist-as-citizen.”

Meet one artistic citizen: Helen Marriage. Director of “Artichoke,” Marriage stays clear of traditional “artistic spaces”— the gallery, concert hall, theater or dance studio—and instead transforms the streets, squares, gardens and coastlines of the public spaces around the UK.

In her talk, “Beyond the institution: Working the streets,” Marriage spoke about disrupting public spaces “with an objective to work with artists to create extraordinary, large-scale events that appeal to the widest possible audience.

At the heart of Marriage’s projects is accessibility and equity, and the notion that all people have the right to experience artwork for free.

One such project was Great Fire 350, dedicated to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the London fire of 1666.

While this project, one among many, speaks for itself, a few aspects deserve special mentioning. Throughout 2016, London marked a season of exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and tours. A festival, really, of the power of the arts to provoke the imagination, Great Fire 350 included an underwater performance art-work, a domino-esque sculpture that snaked throughout London’s streets, which outlined the various roadways of the 1666 fire, and ended with a live re-burning of a model of 1666 London on the Thames River. This grandiose festival implied numerous aspects about social life. Primarily, though, Great Fire 350 highlighted a beautiful and powerful resilience of a city and its peoples to be re-born.

Chicago’s Floating Museum

How can art transform a landscape? And who have access to such transformation? The River Assembly Project not only confirms that art has the power to transform, but also declares that each and all should have access to art’s potentials.

Turning an industrial barge into The Floating Museum, Chicago’s local artists, with various arts and cultural organizations, came together to “create temporary, site-responsive museum spaces to activate sites of cultural potential throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

According to the creators of the project, first it’s important to talk “with community leaders, organizations, and artists who are deeply invested in their neighborhood.” Then they “nurture new connections between communities, institutions, and the people these spaces serve.” The results of this process are “installations are platforms for engaging communities and celebrating the art and culture being produced by our neighborhoods.” In doing so, The River Assembly Project “bring[s] together the work of … dispersed locations in a traveling museum that celebrates the energy” of Chicago.

The Floating Museum showcases visual arts, media, and performances by more than 30 local and national artists, including:

Miguel Aguilar (aka Kane One), Tiaybe Bledsoe, Marcus Alleyne, Hebru Brantley, Marcus Davis, Asia Delores, Bill Douglas, Louis DeMarco, Kameco Dodd, Marcus Evans, Assaf Evron, Krista Franklin, Maria Gaspar, Tracie D. Hall, Jeff Harris, Adam Hines, Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Yashua Klos, Gaby Ibarra, Kopano (performance), Faheem Majeed, Christopher Meerdo, Ciera Missick, Cecil McDonald Jr, Jesse McLean, MonAerie (performance), Derek Moore, Dan Peterman, Cheryl Pope, Pope.L, Fernando Ramirez, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Cauleen Smith, Sheila Smith, Edra Soto, Lan Tuazon, Maria Villarreal, Roman Villarreal, JGV/WAR (J. Gibran Villalobos & Wil A. Ruggiero), Amanda Williams, Bernard Williams, Avery R. Young & De Deacon Board (performance)

Why the Arts Matter

What happens to us when we actively engage as art-makers or art-takers? Who do we become?

Given the complexities of today’s political, social, and emotional landscapes, engaging with/through the arts is as important now more than ever. Why? “With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s easy to question the value of telling stories or making sculptures.” While some may be tempted to question the arts at times like these, we disagree. And so does Miguel Syjuco.

“Silence, it is said, implies complicity. But that’s only half the story. Silence also confirms oppression, because the ability to speak out is too often a luxury of the privileged.

The aggressive populism we see today seems to be a testament to people refusing to be silent – and rightly so. Our societies have largely failed to provide equally for all, and technology now gives us new avenues through which to be heard, and with which to rebel against repressive ideas and structures. New leaders have latched onto that and now seek to speak for us, even though many of them are rallying us crudely around fear and mistrust.”

Art making and art taking help us raise our voices to the level of consciousness. The arts confirm that we do not need to remain silent and complicit.

Pablo Picasso knew this all too well. That’s why he painted “Guernica.”

Food for thought on why the arts matter…

Designing Activism

Typically, architecture may be viewed as the business of creating functional and “aesthetically” interesting structures for others. Stated this way, how can architecture align with notions of artistic citizenship? Stephen Klimek states that architects need to move beyond form and function to become “citizen architects.” Doing so, architects would ask the following ethical questions. And these questions, according to Klimek, lend themselves towards civic leadership, or what we’d call artistic citizenship:

  • What is the role of architecture?
  • What do we need architecture to be?
  • What does the world need today?

There are many examples of architects who ask the above questions. One such architectural group is TYIN tegnestue. Established in 2008 by Yashar Hanstad and Andreas G Gjertsen and based out of Trondheim, Norway, the firm works towards social sustainability and pragmatic creativity, or, what they call their projects, “architecture of necessity.” The young architects have been involved in diverse projects, from attempts at improving poor areas in Bangkok, to a Sumatran training center and original projects in Norway.

(C) PASI AALTO 2007
(C) PASI AALTO 2007

The architectural firm travelled to the Thai-Burmese border to create dormitories for Karen refugee children.

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As stated by the architects:

The main driving force behind the Soe Ker Tie House was to provide the children with their own private space, a place that they could call home and a space for interaction and play.

The Soe Ker Tie House is a blend between local skills and TYIN’s architectural knowledge. Because of their appearance the buildings were named Soe Ker Tie Haus by the Karen workers; The Butterfly Houses. The most prominent feature is the bamboo weaving technique, which was used on the side and back facades of the houses. The same technique can be found within the construction of the local houses and crafts. All of the bamboo was harvested within a few kilometres of the site.

The specially shaped roof of the Soe Ker Tie Houses promotes natural ventilation within the sleeping units and at the same time rainwater can be collected and stored for the dry season. The iron wood construction is assembled on-site using bolts ensuring precision and strength.

To prevent problems with moisture and rot, the sleeping units are raised off the ground on four concrete foundations, casted in old tires.

After a six month long mutual learning process with the locals in Noh Bo, the Soe Ker Tie House was completed in 2009 consisting of 6 sleeping units, housing 24 children. Important principles like bracing, material economisation and moisture prevention, may possibly lead to a more sustainable building tradition for the Karen people in the future.

What follows is an example of their humanitarian architecture in progress: