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Good Public Sculpture Has a Sense of Place

Many of you may be familiar with the “Charging Bull” public art controversy currently brewing in New York City.

For the uninitiated, since 1985 there has been a large public sculpture of a charging bull in Bowling Green, a small public park in New York City’s Financial District. The bronze sculpture, entitled, appropriately, “Charging Bull”, stands 11’ tall and weighs 7,100 lbs. It was originally installed as unofficial guerilla art by artist Arturo Di Modica, but it’s popularity led to it becoming a permanent fixture in the park. The sculpture has become a popular tourist destination, and now serves as an icon symbolizing Wall Street and New York’s Financial District.

Controversy erupted earlier this year when State Street Global Advisors, a nearby investment firm, commissioned and installed a new sculpture directly across from Charging Bull. This new sculpture, created by artist Kristin Visbal, is called “Fearless Girl”, and depicts a young girl standing with her hands on her hips, defiantly staring down Charging Bull.

Many view the Fearless Girl statue as a symbol of gender equality. Di Modica, however, has taken offense to it, claiming it distorts the intent of his Charging Bull sculpture, transforming it from a symbol of prosperity and strength into one of a villain. While he supports the concept of gender equality, he argues that the Fearless Girl statue should be placed in another location, where it does not hijack and subvert the meaning of his Charging Bull sculpture.

Yet another artist has now inserted himself into the mix, heightening the controversy. This artist, Alex Gardega, has created and installed a third sculpture that interacts with the other two. The sculpture, titled “Pissing Pug”, depicts a small dog lifting his leg and urinating on Fearless Girl. Gardega created this sculpture in support of Di Modica, emphasizing the point that new works of public art can in fact change the meaning of existing public art.

As a custom sculpture studio, and a creator of public art, we’ve been fascinated as this drama has unfolded. We’ve had a few questions about our thoughts on it, so thought it might be good fodder for a blog post. While I can’t speak for the rest of our talented team, many of whom are artisans, I can offer my personal opinion.

In a nutshell, I am in agreement with the Charging Bull sculptor, Di Modica. Changes to the direct environment of public art, especially those intentionally designed to interact with the art, can in fact change the meaning of the original art. Personal sculptures are intended to stand on their own – they will be moved and displayed wherever the purchaser/owner desires. Good public sculpture, on the other hand, has a sense of place and context – it ideally interacts with its surrounding environment to enhance the meaning of the sculpture, its surrounding location, or both. It does not exist as an island unto itself. When an alignment with its surroundings is a fundamental attribute of a public sculpture (as it should be), changes to the direct environment aimed at impacting the public sculpture can subvert its intended meaning.

I will offer a small example of a project that we were involved in. We were commissioned to create a 10’ monumental bronze sculpture, called Star VI, honoring the crew of a Sacramento County Sheriff helicopter that crashed on the shore of Sacramento’s Lake Natoma. The public sculpture honors the lives of two deputies -Deputies Joseph Kiervernagel and Kevin Blount - who were killed in the accident, and a third - Deputy Eric Henrickson - who survived with major injuries. The sculpture, designed by the late sculptor Tom Bennett, features an abstract wing design surrounding an open center. The sculpture was consciously placed on the Lake Natoma shore opposite the crash site, so that viewers looking through the open center would see the spot where the helicopter crashed, helping to memorialize the victims.

Now, imagine if someone erected a structure – art, commercial, whatever – directly in the sight line of the Star VI memorial sculpture. One of the key intentions of this sculpture would be subverted, and its meaning would be fundamentally altered. When it comes to public sculpture, and public art in general, place does matter, and should, in most cases, be a fundamental element of the design.