Public art invites interpretation, criticism

by Joe Carlson

Thanks to a new University program, public art is popping up in unexpected places — like on windows and stairs.
The program, called Public Art on Campus, is responsible for coordinating at least 12 pieces of public art on the Twin Cities campus. But Kayim, coordinator of the art program, said many people might not realize a piece of public art when they see it.
Some pieces are vague in terms of meaning, such as a set of photographic stained-glass windows above the doorways in Tate Hall. Others simply look too functional and architectural to be art. One case in point is a work recently commissioned by the University: a set of asymmetrical, “amphitheatric” steps outside the St. Paul campus gymnasium titled “Rhythmics.”
The work, created by Athena Tacha, a professor of sculpture at Oberlin College, is a blend of aesthetics and function. Not only are the steps interesting to look at, Kayim said, but they also provide a good place to sit and eat lunch outside.
Another deceptively architectural piece of art on the St. Paul campus — which, incidentally, was also designed by Tacha — is a series of engraved black tiles in the bottom floor of the Ecology Building. Called “Eco-Rhythms,” the piece features engravings that focus on the specific areas of research of each of the scientists in the building.
Kayim said the look and feel of public art in America has been evolving. What many people used to think of as public art — huge, alienating slabs of lurching iron and steel — is no longer the case.
“Public art is art that involves the community and has an element of the needs of the community in it,” she said. A good example is a piece by Steven Woodward outside of the Integrated Waste Management Facility, which is located to the east of the Huron Boulevard parking complex.
An upside-down scientific beaker melts into a pool of symmetrically layered goo in the smallish green copper sculpture. The beaker is adorned with the four symbols that represent the four kinds of toxic waste the management facility is charged with treating.
“Sphere,” by Ed Carpenter, is another example of public art reflecting its surrounding environment and is placed in the new Carlson School of Management building.
Carpenter worked closely with the architects of the building, and a commission of people who now work daily in the building. The outcome, he said, reflects the partnership.
“The sculpture was designed as a response to the architecture,” Carpenter said. “It’s meant to have a feeling of appropriateness to that space and to complete that space.”
Such was not the case in public art of the past, Kayim said. In the past, many artists would simply wheel their latest sculpture into a public space without any thought to how the art worked within that space.
“Sphere” is similar to the melting beaker outside the waste management building in that it symbolizes the building for which it’s designed: The round sculpture is meant to remind on-lookers of the business school’s “global aspirations.”
But its creator, Carpenter, cautioned that “Sphere” is not meant to strictly mean one thing or another. Instead, it contains intentional vagueness. The ambiguity gives people something to ponder as they look at it, he said.
“A successful piece of public art can induce a sense of mystery … that we have precious little of in our lives,” Carpenter said.
“It’s not addressing just their heads,” Carpenter said. “It’s addressing their hearts as well.”