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)

For Freedoms

The heart of Artistic Citizenship asks artists of all kinds, whether amateur or professional and across all arts domains, to ask critically important questions, such as:

What responsibilities do artists have to engage in art work for social transformation?

One organization—or, “super PAC” as they call themselves—aptly named “For Freedoms,” not only interrogates this question, but also activates this question for those whom engage with their artistry. As Celia McGee writes:

Founded by Hank Willis Thomas, a photographer and conceptual artist, and Eric Gottesman, a video artist and activist, the super PAC is named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” wartime address in 1941 — a call to safeguard the freedoms of speech and worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.

Contributing artists and photographers include Carrie Mae WeemsRashid JohnsonXaviera SimmonsAlec Soth, Bayeté Ross Smith, Fred Tomaselli and Marilyn Minter. Their works will be used for billboards, building signs, subway advertising, Internet memes, social media and select print advertising, potentially even yard signs, and ultimately an art show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea.

For Freedoms describes their mission as follows:

As the first artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms uses art to inspire deeper political engagement for citizens who want to have a greater impact on the American political landscape.

WE BELIEVE

We believe that artists, and art, play an important role in galvanizing our society to do better. We are frustrated with a system in which money, divisiveness, and a general lack of truth-telling have stifled complex conversation. We created the first artist-run super Pac because we believe it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.

What can we learn about the role of art in politics from For Freedoms? We leave this up to you to decide. For now, we urge you to think-through today through the lens of the actions and activism of For Freedoms.

A Jim Goldberg photograph from the Postcards From America series. Jackie Smith, protesting gentrification in Memphis, at the site of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., now the National Civil Rights Museum.

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…