"Project Ålidhem" Ingo Vetter and Peter Lundström

"I like Umeå and Umeå likes me" Lasse Sahlin

"An Important Part of our Education" Students’ Foreword

Ylva Trapp

Frida Krohn
Therese Johansson
Lars Hedelin
Frida Krohn, Ylva Trapp
och Lina Palmqvist

Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy

Per-Arne Sträng
Martina Wolgast
Mariel Rosendahl
Nils-Johan Sjöquist


"The History of Ålidhem" Hans Åkerlind
"My own private Ålidhem" Maria Bjurestam
"Functional Sculpturer" Ingo Vetter

Presentation of Participants


This is a abbreviated version of a text, first published in the book
Carl Bergström (Ed.), Art among us – Public Art in Gävle, Gävle 2008.

It’s a challenge to write about artistic strategies for public space, as the general presence of city marketing has reduced the debate to the single question of efficiency. “To highlight the strengths and disregard the weaknesses” is common practice when campaigning a location, but over and above this, rules of advertising penetrate city politics and lead to the commercialisation of all activities. (1) The Event seems to be the apotheosis of this development, because it is defined in size, duration and sometimes in costs; the results are measurable and leave no physical remains. Art in public space does not have that kind of quantifiable outcome. Public Art Programs are an investment and at the same time a responsibility, which shows their quality in their consistency. But my remarks should not be understood as cultural pessimism, since I don’t think commercialisation is a particularly new threat for art in public space. Instead I would like to recapitulate the relation between public art and its public functionalisation. Maybe this relation is more a passage from the one to the other, but the involved artist has always had to develop strategies (either rejecting or affirming) to preserve freedom of interpretation. Previously critical approaches to public art (site-specificity, art in public space, art as public space, art in public interest, relational concepts) have been relegated to applied use, but most of the works (or their documentations) still exist and some of them might work better today than at the time they were conceived.

I write this text from an artist’s perspective and won’t follow a strict chronology; instead I discuss certain keywords illustrated by one piece of public art. The examples chosen are not representative, but more a selection of sculptures I am interested in. At the same time I want to refer to an international debate, where these sculptures are relevant.

subtitle: Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, Documenta 11, Kassel 2002

The term art in public space first emerged in the 1960s when artworks were commissioned for the urban realm. No longer as art supplementing architecture or in the way modernist outdoor sculpture used environment as background, the new idea was to understand public space as the environment for the art.

This notion is connected to the agora, the place of assembly in an ancient Greek city-state, a place to exchange opinions and do politics. Even though this privilege was restricted to free-born male land owners and the agora was otherwise used for the military or as a marketplace, it created a strong image of public space as the place where society is constituted. Every political movement therefore aims to achieve maximum visibility in the city streets and squares. This is especially evident in democratic struggles, where public space became synonymous with democracy. Consequently, any artwork within public space must be democratic, too. This idea can be found in most public art programs from the 1970s. Since then the perception of the audience has changed into a fragmented public (2) and the understanding of public space changed into public domain (3), with a multiplicity of virtual and real encounters between the individual and the public. Artists are not addressing a general public anymore, instead we are talking about a community, users or a target group. We research not only the physical conditions of a site, we also consider its daily usage, power relations, gender issues, economic and environmental matters etc. Still, the question of democracy sticks to public art like chewing gum to a carpet.

One of the artists who regularly takes up the question of democracy is Thomas Hirschhorn. His Bataille Monument at Documenta 11 was raised in an unattractive social housing area just outside of Kassel’s center. Besides a Bataille sculpture, the installation included a library, a TV studio, a snack bar and a carpool. Accessibility was most important and the whole neighborhood became involved in the construction and operation during the 100 days of the exhibition. Even though the installation was very popular during Documenta, the question about who and what was represented was increasingly posed. Hirschhorn himself never left any doubt about his authorship.

subtitle: Henry Moore, Large Two Forms, Ed. 4+1, 1969, placed in front of the chancellery in Bonn 1979

Modernist sculpture, present in size and material, abstract in form, international in style and universal in language, has all the qualities a politician would want to be associated with. The British sculptor Henry Moore was the first choice for post-World War II representational tasks. The West-German chancellor Helmut Schmidt decided in 1979 to place one copy of Large Two Forms in front of the chancellery (in Bonn at the time). In his interpretation, the artwork expressed Germany, divided into two separate countries but still belonging to each other. However, the sculpture was so well received, that it became the background for every TV interview with politicians in Bonn. For ten years it was a synonym for West German politics.

After the reunification a new chancellery was built in Berlin. The first idea was to move the Moore sculpture, but soon it became obvious that a new work had to be commissioned for Berlin. A committee under the direction of then chancellor Helmut Kohl opted for Eduardo Chillida, another modernist, known for his massive forged iron sculptures. Maybe they asked for “something similar to the Moore sculpture” as Chillida’s recalled Moore’s in size and the duality of the shape. The sketches show two T-shaped forms, whereas the connecting parts split into octopus-like arms twisted into each other. When Berlin was installed in Berlin in 2000, it was warmly welcomed by the then chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But the square-edged sculpture never worked that well as a TV background and soon other locations were chosen for broadcasting.

subtitle: Robert Graham, Joe Louis Memorial, Detroit 1986

Joe Louis, the legendary American world champion in heavyweight boxing (defended his title 25 times, knocked down Max Schmeling in 1938) died in 1981, poor and in debt. Afterwards Ronald Reagan ordered a state funeral with military honors and Louis was publicly mourned. The magazine Sports Illustrated donated $350,000 for a memorial in Detroit, the city where Louis grew up. Robert Graham, a California-based monumental sculptor and famous for his naturalistic interpretations was commissioned for the job. In 1986 a 7.3 m long fist made of blackened bronze was erected at the main crossing of Detroit’s inner city.

Besides his importance in sports, Louis was an icon for the African-American community. In the 1970-80s the city of Detroit was the black capital of the US and Coleman Young its first black mayor. It was a city with an impoverished black population in constant conflict with its rich white suburbs. In this situation the sculpture was immediately perceived as a symbol for the struggle of Detroit. Even if the black fist pointed towards Canada, many suburbanites were offended by the sculpture. After demands to remove the sculpture were refused, it was frequently attacked, the latest incident occurring in 2004, when the sculpture was painted partly white.

NGO Urban Movement, Bruce Lee Monument, Mostar 2005

In 2004 the Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art launched the two-year project De/construction of Monument, a critical interpretation of the symbolic representation of the old, the renewed or the new ideological constructs in Bosnia. The post-war situation was characterised by a “hyper-politicized space” (4), where every action or movement was immediately aligned politically with one of the former conflict opponents. Culture as well as public space first had to be de-contaminated in order to be able to be used again.

Consequently the NGO Urban Movement proposed a monument for the former frontier city, Mostar. Formally unified, the city is still divided into two parts between two major communities (Croatian and Bosnian). The announcement of a monument immediately raised many questions about politics and representation, and the search for an appropriate formal solution was a delicate task. The decision to honor Bruce Lee might come as a surprise at first, but turned out to be an intelligent way to restart the communication process between the former opponents. The purpose of the monument is “to defend the non-political sphere of life in order to provide it with dignity” (5). For a whole generation, regardless of ethnicity, Bruce Lee was their childhood hero. The characters he played stand first of all for the necessity to fight for justice.

As for the sculpture itself, it is interesting that the NGO Urban Movement (which has no expertise in the field of art) emphasized the traditional qualities of the work. It was life-size, conceived by an academic sculptor, cast in bronze and placed on a pedestal. The inscription reads “Bruce Lee, 1940–1973, Your Mostar”. This strategy for the urban realm worked so well, that other towns in former Yugoslavia have reproduced it: there is a Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) statue in Žitište, a Samantha Fox statue in Čačak and a Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) statue is planned for Međa.

subtitle: Esther Shalev-Gerz & Jochen Gerz, Monument against Fascism, Hamburg-Harburg 1986

The Municipal Council of Hamburg-Harburg decided in 1983 to erect a monument against fascism. Following a public hearing the commission was awarded to Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz.

The artists invited the city’s residents and visitors to engrave their names and sign against fascism on the monument, a 12 m tall lead-coated square column. When the accessible part of the monument was covered with inscriptions, it was lowered into the ground. Between the inauguration in October 1986 and its disappearance in November 1993, the Monument against Fascism was lowered eight times. Around 70,000 inscriptions cover the four sides of the column and can be seen through windows in the monument’s pedestal. But it was not only signatures which were preserved in the lead surface. After a cautious beginning with properly engraved names, a wide range of comments (positive, negative or filled with hatred), signs (including swastikas) or pure destruction (even bullet holes) could be found. Every time the column was lowered, a discussion arose about whether the comments truly represented the inhabitants’ opinions. Some politicians demanded corrections and asked the artists to intervene. Finally, everybody in Hamburg-Harburg seemed to be relieved by the column’s disappearance, whereas internationally the work is regarded as an outstanding example of contemporary monuments.

I just want to be conscious of where I am, in relationship to all these different parameters.” (6) This quote by the land artist Robert Smithson from the 1970s could be understood as a motto anticipating a great deal of contemporary art. The need and the necessity to investigate the places where we are, in all their complexity and contradictions, is a pre-condition for working in public space. What Smithson is asking for is not simply to ascertain oneself in the world but rather to establish a relationship between oneself and the environment. To define these parameters is the difficult part of his famous quote. Contemporary artists expanded and partly replaced the parameters he took into account – geographical, geological, climatological – by economic, political, historical or gender parameters. (7)

A turning point for this shift of parameters was the installation and subsequent removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc at New York City’s Federal Plaza. In 1979 Serra was commissioned by the state program, Art-in-Architecture, to develop a sculpture for the square in front of the United Nations Headquarters. When the 120 feet long (36.6 m) and 12 feet high (3.6 m) solid plate of Core-Ten steel was raised in 1981, it blocked nearly the whole entrance of the building. Serra described this as »The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.« Indeed, the users of the building became aware of themselves and demanded the removal of this barrier. The following eight year long debate concluded in the destruction of the sculpture in 1989.

I would like to focus on the two different perceptions of public space in this debate: the formal approach, where Tilted Arc was perfectly located in relation to the square and its architecture, versus the sculpture’s disregard for all the functions and uses of the actual site. The art historian James Meyer later noted this in an essay discussing the development of site-specificity since the 1960s: “The site of the 1990s is peopled, territorial, a site in which identities are negotiated and produced.” (8) This social aspect inspired many artists to look for a direct political use of their work and so they turned towards community-based projects. A famous example is Culture in Action, a public art program in Chicago in 1993, curated by Mary Jane Jacob. This was the first major exhibition of participatory art practices, addressing different neighborhood and minority groups. Here public art was redefined as New Genre Public Art. Afterwards the concept was criticized for its understanding of community, as a localised and authentic group, accessible for artists’ intervention. Also the close relations to the social services was a subject matter for the critics.

subtitle: David Bade, Anita, Rotterdam, 2001

In The Netherlands, the view of that last question was more pragmatic. The social functions and circumstances in a specific city district became the crucial factor for the funding of many community-based projects. Studio houses for example are seen as positive for an area’s development. If an artist group moves to a “bad” neighborhood, the artists can receive benefits (the rent or even operating expenses). For urban social planning, it’s an unbeatable cheap solution, a win-win situation. But this broad functionalisation has also caused counter reactions and I would like to look at one sculpture, which in my interpretation might illustrate this.

David Bade obviously denied all demands of site-specificity when he installed Anita in the city center of Rotterdam. The sculpture looks like quickly assembled styrofoam sheets glued together with polyurethane-foam in bold colors (actually it’s made of polyester), pushed into a big-bag and placed on a palette. The site of the sculpture is one of the main crossings, walking distance to a famous skating park and Rotterdam’s sculpture mile. Formally the sculpture does not relate to any of these parameters: no references in material and colors; it does not react to the architecture; it’s too far away from the square and too close to the street, almost in the middle of the traffic. The impression is more of an abandoned museum sculpture. At this point, modernist outdoor sculpture comes to mind, just a bit different and more appealing.


In this text I focus on sculpture in its material sense and don’t really take up performative, relational or virtual approaches. But I would like to mention immateriality as a strategy of conceptual art and as a counterpoint to the sculptures presented above. “To give a different approach to reality” (9) could be seen as a common ground for contemporary public art. But this does not claim any specific materiality. On the contrary, many artists argue for as little material appearance as possible, as the actual experience is the nucleus in regarding art. The last Documenta 12 had experience as one of the keywords and contained many great artworks confirming this statement. Most projects for public space unfortunately remained only as documentations since the actual experience was a temporary event. Some tried hard to maintain the tension of an immaterial public artwork: for the 1997 edition of skulptur projekte münster Maria Eichhorn proposed the acquisition of a piece of land. A lot in central Münster should be bought by the city as an artwork. It would comprise all the transactions and procedures involved in the purchase/sale of a plot, including research of open areas for sale, viewing, choice, title transfer, change of owner, entry in the land register, and use. Later in the exhibition the contract of sale was shown, whereas the use of the lot was its existence. For Eichhorn, the work was about the relation between real value and symbolic value, the lot’s market price and the project’s importance as an artwork. The city administration promoted this project through the duration of skulptur projekte, but had no serious plans to keep it. When the exhibition ended, they tried to get rid of the responsibility by offering the work to the Landesmuseum Münster. As the museum could not afford to buy the artwork, it was sold again as a lot on the market.

The autonomy of artists and artworks can only be seen as a strategic argument since it was used differently in the last century. Autonomy was defended as a basic condition to secure artistic quality, but also as an authoritarian gesture – for example, to abolish the parameters described for site-specificity. After the 1970s (politicization of the artists production, land-art movement) and especially after the 1990s (context art, institutional critique), the idea of autonomy was deconstructed and abandoned.

Today, every aspect of our daily life is being commercialized and we see ourselves as part of a global economy. In this situation it’s interesting to come up with a new concept of autonomy for the arts. Not autonomy in regards to “all these different parameters”, but in regards to the logic of utilization. For the media arts, the theorist Geert Lovink called this dilemma tactical media: “The only advantage is to be five minutes faster” (10). This statement affirms the monopolization of all critical or independent approaches by mass media. The definition of autonomy is actually based on time and not on certain media, place or specific discourse. Adopting this strategy for public art would again favor performative and relational concepts. Or cause exactly the opposite reaction: gaining time, weight and volume, resisting mobility, flexible uses and denying function.

However, it will be exciting to see the future art in public space. To be able to experience this as a development and an ongoing discourse, it’s necessary to run long-term programs. The existing public art programs are treasures and will hopefully be extended and continued.



(1) Hartmut Häusermann, »Citymarketing« in: Franzen/König/Plath, skulptur projekte münster 07, Köln 2007

(2) Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung, Frankfurt am Main 1972

(3) Maarten Hajer and Arnold Reijndorp, In Search of New Public Domain, Rotterdam 2001

(4) Nino Raspudic and Dunja Blaževi, quoted from different texts at

(5) Nino Raspudic, l.c.

(6) Jack D Flam, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley 1996.

(7) Annette Weisser in a lecture at De Appel in Amsterdam 2001

(8) James Meyer, ”Der funktionale Ort”, in: Springer Magazin Vienna, December 1996

(9) Tom van Gestel, Artistic Director of SKOR (Foundation Art and Public Space, Amsterdam) in a lecture in Umeå 22.03.2007

(10) Geert Lovink in a lecture at the Viper Festival in Luzern 1998

Photo credits:

Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, photo: Dieter Schwerdtle

Henry Moore, Large Two Forms, photo: photo: reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

Robert Graham, Joe Louis Memorial, photo: Ingo Vetter

NGO Urban Movement, Bruce Lee Monument, photo: Branimir Prijak

Esther Shalev-Gerz & Jochen Gerz, Monument against Fascism, photo: Esther Shalev-Gerz

David Bade, Anita, photo: Ronald Cornelissen/Sculpture International Rotterdam