The award-winning Yifu Library in the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute Photo. — From time to time, public sculptures astonish audiences across China.
Two sculptures at a Shaanxi Province university in Northwest China, for example, adopted the familiar faces of two university staff members, portrayed as goddesses in the artwork.
Another sculpture was said by its creator to promote “filial spirit”: The two posturing pigs in Zhengzhou, Henan Province in central China, turned out also to be a facsimile of an obscene toy from a decade ago.
The headline-grabbing, fast-changing world of public art in China could clearly benefit from a little more professionalism and seriousness.
About 40 scholars, experts and entrepreneurs assembled for the Public Art Forum of the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong in Shanghai on January 6 and 7, hoping to achieve just that, by shedding a little more light upon the issues.
Although the study of public art started later in China than in the West, public art has sprouted up almost everywhere across the country in recent years.
Local governments and real estate entrepreneurs drive their art projects forward, with more and more public space becoming occupied with their sculptures, art installations, ingenious gardening and even architecture.
The Taipei-based Lead Jade Construction Company hosted art exhibitions in and around its temporary sales centers.
Since 2002, Lead Jade has been entering Taipei communities and interacting with residents to create collaborative art installations in shared public space.
An increasing number of artists and designers have been cooperating with NGOs while other organizations do art projects in urban and rural communities.
Chan Yuk Keung, an art professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, summarized during the forum a public art story of Hong Kong in which two designers picked up speckled ceramic mugs scheduled for the trash heap and converted those speckles into art.
Chan believes public art, which can be dated back to the classical age when it was used by the authorities for education and indoctrination, might now start to listen to its audience, who are educated and believe in equal rights.
Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts professor Li Gongming agreed with Chan.
One significant function of contemporary public art should be addressing social issues to facilitate the development of a civil society, he said.
“More and more artists and community managers have come to share a common ground that the intervention of art into the public should be sharp, profound and distinct,” Li said.
Li spoke highly of six public art cases that won the International Award for Public Art in April last year, jointly organized by Public Art China periodical and the Public Art Review from the US.
Among the laureates was the campus of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, which has maintained the area’s natural mountain-water topography, traditional village houses and fields while also featuring collaborative architecture produced by artists and villagers.
“This specific art itself has gradually deconstructed the commemorative function and focuses on how to realize its ‘public’ feature through communication and interaction with audiences,” said Fang Xiaofeng, an art professor from Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Also attending the forum in the Shanghai University College of Fine Arts was Colin Fournier, a visiting professor at the School of Architecture of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He listed “no emotional resonance” as one of the top characteristics of bad public art, adding unclear symbolism, lack of innovation, mediocre artistry and no sensorial quality.
Li Renqing, secretary general and associate professor of Rural Social Issue Research Center of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, however, put forward another concern by reinterpreting the English word “China” as chai na, which means house demolition.
“It’s so pitiful seeing the beautiful ancient buildings being demolished during modernization, which often results in uniform dull-looking blocks,” Li said. “To protect those ancient treasures of highest artistic value is actually to create another species of public art for local communities.”
Li’s point of view was echoed by Chang Wei-huai, manager of Lead Jade Construction Company who felt sad at the loss of old village houses in Taipei.
China lacks an effective legal system for public art, experts agreed.
In Taiwan, policies concerning the development of public art have been enforced since 1992, constantly adapting and adjusting to the development and diversification of public art.
Chinese mainland regulations, drafted in the 1990s, lag behind.