Public Art: We don’t need more monuments! Don’t we? | FABIO CIARAVELLA



In Favara, a small town close to Agrigento, Sicily, a place deeply touched by north-african immigration and by the shipwreck tragedies, a Franciscan friar recently decided to transform one of the hope (and sometimes death) ships of the immigrants into a landmark for public space.

Public administration, navy and citizens helped him to take the ship in the center of a panoramic city spot, and orient it toward the sea of the tragedies.

The intervention today is a “surreal” ship clearly belonging to immigrants, placed and shaped with no aesthetical knowledge and any culture of monument. It stays as an admonishment and represents a message of our time.

Also the ship has been declared into a “monument” by the city mayor

That object and all the process around it allow us to look back at certain meanings and critical discussions already absorbed by the art in the public space field, since they come from a world far from contemporary art.

Firstly it raises the question: Don’t we really need monuments anymore?

Non-monumental culture and future

This simple and maybe banal question could be raised today because during the past 50 years contemporary art approach to public space is firmly anti or non monumental.

Although still there are many shapes of power claiming through urban landmarks, the word “monument” today is widely considered as an obsolete and rather negative one.

Even though the idea that the monument, as a shape of power or a selected memory imposition, is widely recognized, today ephemeral or temporary art for public space production questions the idea of critical thought.

In fact, that kind of direction denies any possibility that art (mainly visual) would be able to represent shared values of our time. The denial involves also humanitarian ideas around migrations for instance, which could be shared in public space as contemporary cultural heritage to be handed down to future generations.

Is this correct? Or maybe would it be better to address the problem talking about possibilities, wishes and languages? Can we and /or do we want to solidify values for the future? Do we have the right language to do that?

Some years ago artist Antoni Muntadas, talking with the architect Juan Herreros about public space, stated that intervention creates a relationship between time and public space. Muntadas suggests a kind of “third way” which could be able to give an answer coherently to some art in public space in regard to ethical premises:

"It’s a long time that the traditional monument, with its stand and its affirmative position, has been questioned. Then the question is: could the artist still leave urban traces? From my point of view there are three possibilities to solve that problem: working with ephemerality; working with context; creating an interdisciplinary collaboration. The traditional monument is related to the idea of permanence. A way to create traces could then be to question the same idea of monument changing it into a temporary intervention. Ephemerality could be seen as a period of time, relatively long, ten years for instance. In this case people and the artist make a deal. They all know that the work will not stay for ever but it will last for a limited period. […] What usually happens when an intervention is made into a community is that it’s abandoned after its making. [Instead, in that case] the artist either mandates someone or the community itself starts to work for the intervention, or the artist himself/herself takes the responsibility to give continuity to the project[…]”[1]

Muntadas’ point of view introduces a solution oriented towards the joint work of art, a specific community and artist around a “deal” in order to create conditions for a temporary-permanent message in the public space.

The action to take care of the work and to consider it as temporary unites the artist with the community, keeping alive the relationship between the work of art (and its message of course) and the community.

For Muntadas the work of art in public space has the right to exist only if it is relevant and alive for the related community. In that sense if the work of art is made and preserved by the artist and community, if it is continuously recognized as “potentially temporary” it highlights the value of public art.

Aesthetics of temporariness and cares

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Philosophers Monuments series could be thought as a representation of Muntadas’ proposal trough used materials.[2]

Hirschhorn himself defined them as a “precarious monument, a short-term monument” [3] to clearly express his interventions as temporary.

The four monuments created between 1999 and 2013 (Spinoza Monument (1999, Amsterdam), Deleuze Monument (2000, Avignon), Bataille Monument (2002, Documenta, Kassel, Gramsci Monument (2013, New York)) are made in two parts: a series focused on precarious spaces and/or shapes made out of cheap and perishable materials; a program of activities and collaborations starting with the building of the work and ending with its destruction.

Without the engagement of the public, Hirschhorn’s monuments have no sense and are not possible.

People who take care of such a work represent the real value in the monument. The monument engages with the inhabitants in a relationship through a temporary library, public talks, and all the other activities programmed which allow to the work to be a place where to meet and to do something.

Without the people, the monument falls apart because its aim is mainly focused on the transmission of a critical attitude.

“I dedicated monuments to these philosophers because they are thinkers who help us believe in our capacity for reflection, they give strength to our thoughts, they encourage us to be active,”[4]

Nevertheless, we can’t say that Hirschhorn’s work, which is so important for the discussions around the contemporary monument, is the solution to the question we have started with.

One of the main reasons is the “work’s programmed expiration”. They are raised with an already known start and end period.

In that sense the artist and/ or the supporting institution have the last word about the relationship among the public space, the work of art and the people. The work process doesn’t allow any connection with a community that decides if they take up or leave the work, as Muntadas suggested.

The used materials are precarious and communicate a sense of temporariness: they couldn’t resist through time. In that decision, Hirschhorn shows his point of view about the work. He doesn’t think his works should stay for a long time and became a “classical monument”. He believes that his work and the related program have to leave an intangible present[5], a reminder:

“I hope that I will have been able to create a memory. My mission is to create a new idea of a monument, something that provokes encounters, which creates events and which makes us think about Gramsci today”[6].

From “Art in the public interest” to “art as public space” and “non monumental design”

Hirschhorn’s works allow us to re-think and maybe widen Kwon’s idea about “art as a public space” [7]. Using this definition Kwon distinguished the art work that materially creates habitable/ usable public spaces, from other art practices for the public space made “in the interest of the public” whose language relates to political actions, ethnographic and post ethnographic art, Fluxus and preformative arts[8].

Looking at Hirschhorn’s monuments we can say he joins these two directions showing how a work of art can be “in interest of the public” creating a tangible public space at the same time.

There is something new and something old in that possibility.

It is old because that approach could be related to celebrative urban scale monuments experiences as the Monument to King Alfonso XII del Parque del Retiro di Madrid. These are monuments created to embrace everyday life offering pleasant activities and places to stay. The presence of the people is “designed” into the monument and it is fundamental to state the monument message (exactly as in Hirschhorn’s work).

The core difference stays in the message, which is celebrative and imposed into classical monuments as opposed to the critical and participatory message embedded into Hirschhorn’s monuments.

This kind of difference is not simple. Many times the works supporting “art as public space” are hard to approach critically. Maybe one of the most clear examples is Serra’s Tilted Arc case.

As is widely known, the work was removed because of its imposed criticism against a politically divided space; that division was not accepted by people and was fought by a conservative establishment group.

The design space created to substitute Serra’s work was organized with a specular approach: benches and paths were studied around Foley Square, as well as people flows, in order to not to create any kind of obstacle.

We can say that the public space project replacing Tilted Arc, erases and neutralizes that idea of criticism, as well as the political tensions belonging to that public space.

Even though we have to say that Serra’s work was not replaced by a work of art (it has been designed by the landscape architect Martha Schwartz (1996)) looking at the previous and the latter Foley Square we can easily recognize what could be thought as “critically or not critically designed public space”.

In that sense we can think of Hirschhorn’s work as a useful example to correctly understand the evolution of art in public space. His approach shows how a public artwork can use the “architectural project” to create a community service talking about non or anti monumental messages.

Creating a conceptual and perhaps brave link, we could say that by comparing Hirschhorn’s perspective to Kwon’s categorization we can better understand why last year’s Turner Prize was awarded to the Assemble group, who mainly make urban design interventions.

Architecture, memorials and shapes of critical thought

Looking back to the starting question, where we were asking “do we still need a monument today?”, the art architecture relationship is fundamental.

The strongest landmarks in the public space raised in the last years are memorials.

And since a memorial is a monument, we can say our western culture has been building relevant monuments in the last years.

Let’s think about the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Eisenmann, 2000-2005) or to the more recent New York National September 11 Memorial (Arad, Walker, 2006-2011): the first is mainly an urban scale sculptural intervention; the last is involved in art classical topics such as fountain and informal sculpture (here represented by the three iron pillars left form Twin Towers fall and now showed to the city). Both works are made by architects, but they perform the role of monument giving to the city and contemporary culture answers that art could hardly face.

In a certain way, those monuments are our values of expression. Do we really say that Berlin’s Eisenmann memorial is unacceptable for its permanence?

Could we really say that the Ground Zero reverse fountains messages are not representative of our times?

Maybe these monuments signify the existence of shared values, as ideas against shoah atrocities and innocent massacre today. They state that we have something to hand down to the future as a fundamental series of values for communities living in those public spaces.

My doubt is more about the capability of these monuments to generate critical thinking into the viewer or the passersby. Both Berlin memorial themes and NY ones could be the occasion to approach our time critically. Nevertheless, the architectural language seems too heavy to launch a problematic perspective and left those monuments into the realm of celebration.

Maybe the lack of a questioning approach in creating these shared, evocative works is related to the fact that they do not generate a discussion between the event and the related communities.


Looking for a monument: the Art / Architecture way

At the end of his maybe most criticized book, Progetto e Utopia, Manfredo Tafuri wrote that in order to think about the architectural field as independent from power first we have to ask ourselves if

[…] this target could be reached without a linguistic, methodological and structural revolution whose dimension goes much further than a personal wish or a simple syntax renovation […][9]

That revolution can’t be found by those who remain

“[…] desperately hooked to specific field ideologies”. [10]

From the meaning of this text, written around the late seventies, we can see how the possibilities to add a critical spot in architecture are strictly bonded to disciplinary terms.

Despite being conceived within the field of art criticism, a similar idea has been stated by Jane Rendell. She also thinks that possibilities in the critical approach for architecture are depending from an expansion toward other fields. Rendell’s idea explains that a critical relocation could be possible if operated toward the art field:

“[…] in order to develop architecture as a critical spatial practice, architecture itself should look at art and should move out of classical boundaries inside an “in-between” disciplinary space” [11]

Another recent contribution to this way of thinking comes from Hal Foster’s The art architecture complex. Foster explains how art and architecture relationships today are changing, creating different approaches and evidences. For this reason he choose the word “complex” to explain that multi-faced contemporary phenomenon.

Foster uses that word with three meanings: as first “complex” he defines the occasions where art and architecture meet, simply overlapping each other;

a second meaning of “complex” recalls a marketing strategy where art-architecture relationships are somehow a commercial mass attraction; as the last “complex” he focuses on its psychological acceptation. In that sense the art-architecture complex is a block, a syndrome, something difficult to overcome or solve because all the possible interactions among the two fields appear natural as well as contradictory.[12]

Considering all these three passages together, from Tafuri to Foster, we could state that a critical possibility in architecture could be done by moving towards art. There are many complex themes to face in that solution mainly related to a languages equilibrium.

For this reason, the issue of the monument could be a good test bed where to look for a linguistic solution within an art-architecture discussion. It could also show the right language to address or test new shapes for permanent or semi-permanent public art.

The “art as public space” field, as identified by Kwon, would provide the solution in leaving traces of our culture into the public space through a monumental and top-down process at the same time. The path for a solution to these questions today looks really uncharted maybe because of a great difficulty to think in “interdisciplinary” terms, overcoming division between the academic fields.

Maybe only when we’ll find the right compromise, a new language, we’ll get to recognize we still need a monument.


[1] A. Muntadas, J. Herreros (2004) Desvelar lo público, Public conversation between Juan Herreros and Antoni Muntadas. Madrid, CIRCO M.R.T. Coop;

[2] This is a speculation of the authero, neither Muntadas nor Hirschhorn have been stating any relationship about that theme;

[3] K. Rittenbach, The Gulch Between Knowledge and Experience: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, Afterall on line, 17/11/2014

[4] F. Bonami, Gramsci In The ’Hood - Why Italy’s Marxist Icon Is Being Honored In The Bronx, La stampa on line, 11/07/2013

[5] Hirschhorn’s idea about the notion of “gift” as a political and activating meaning is clearly expressed as follows:

“I love in the notion of “gift” the offensive, demanding and even aggressive part in it, it’s the part that provokes the Other to give more! It’s the part which implies a response to the gift, a real and active response”

  1. Birrel, The Headless Artist: An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn on the Friendship Between Art and Philosophy, Precarious Theatre and the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival, Art & Research, Vol. 3 n°1, Winter 2009/ 10

[6] ibidem

[7] M. Kwon (2002), One Place After Another, The MIT Press,

[8] This group of ideas and practices coincides more or less with the ones gathered into the “New Genre Public Art” expressed by Suzanne Lacy in her book pubished in 1995.

[9] Tafuri M. (2007) Progetto e utopia. Bari: Laterza. pp 168-169

[10] ibidem

[11] Rendell J. (2006) Art and Architecture: a place between. Londra: Tauris

[12] Foster H (2013), The art architecture complex, Londra, Verso.