EXAMPLE: AUKE DE VRIES
Public art lacks this protection. For Auke de Vries that is nothing new. In more than twenty-five years of making sculptures for public spaces he has met with resistance on more than one occasion. He duly evinces a keen interest in the mediation activities surrounding his sculptures. The client’s job really, but de Vries is perfectly willing to do his bit.
A work evidently on a private site, like his sculptures for Dutch Telecom in The Hague (1988) and the Netherlands Architectural Institute in Rotterdam (1994), is likely to encounter less virulent rejection. Things are more difficult when a location is part of an intensively used public area. Users tend to identify with that kind of area; the commission was granted by an abstract authority and the unknown artist’s intervention is seen as a despotic act, invading a Lebensraum which users have come to regard as their own personal space. The best that mediation can achieve in such cases is to encourage users to identify with the sculpture as part of their Lebensraum, as a landmark with a function similar to a monument’s. The path can be long and arduous though, as it was for the installation Blühendes Barock (Baroque in Bloom) which Auke de Vries designed to stand at the entrance to the German town of Ludwigsburg as part of a sculpture exhibition in the Stuttgart area in 1992/93. The aim of the exhibition was ‘to give the location [of each sculpture] a new identity.’ Of course the organizers, Rudi Fuchs and Veit Görner, knew that a lot of mediation would be necessary, for part of the exhibition concept was to persuade people to accept the sculptures in the long term. The entrance to a town is a very important identifying factor for its inhabitants. Auke de Vries published articles in the local newspaper, attended discussion evenings and answered a lot of questions. The most difficult thing about such contacts with the public is to answer the inevitable, stereotype questions about the point of the work or what the artist is trying to convey. Quite often the artist doesn’t know. In any case, this kind of question is inappropriate to a 20th-century artwork. This century’s art invites us to get to grips with the work itself instead of waiting for instructions. Clues are provided by what the artist has to say about the work, by other works by the same artist, by art history and – the special thing about site-specific art – by the environment for which the work was designed.
THE ON-SITE SCULPTURAL MENTAL PROCESS
Auke de Vries is one of the few artists who, when interested in a public space commission, do not meekly accept the placement chosen by the client. After all, in site-specific work, placement is part of the artistic concept. Striking examples in this context are the aforementioned sculpture for Dutch Telecom’s head office at The Hague (1988) and Het Maasbeeld (Mass Sculpture, Rotterdam, 1982), with which de Vries first attracted international attention. The latter project began as an invitation to suggest colours for a proposed new road bridge across the river Maas. De Vries gracefully declined with the explanation that this was no job for a ‘free’ artist. Instead he asked for two years’ grace during which, in collaboration with planners, he carefully examined the entire surrounding area. Het Maasbeeld started life as a 185 metre-long sculpture suspended between the old railway bridge and the new road bridge. To the casual glance of train passengers travelling between Rotterdam and Brussels it looked like a stretched-out skein of corded steel and heavy metal elements. It might equally well have been a random waste dockyard product which had been overlooked during clearing-up operations, were it not for the fact that the placement of some of the hanging elements was obviously quite deliberate. The fleeting glance could not possibly make the same mistake today: the tracks are underground now and the railway bridge has been dismantled. All that remains – left there especially for the sculpture – is the bridge-pier from which it is suspended. The situation has thus mutated from an apparently random link between two bridges into a situation which gives the sculpture its own space, making it more ‘free’ in a way. The well-documented mutation illustrates the subtle, visual interrelations of forces involved in an artist’s venture into public space with what are after all quite forceful interventions. Of course Auke de Vries knew that the railway bridge was to go, and devised his total concept accordingly. The popular nickname since conferred upon his sculpture – ‘washing-line’ – is an indication of its acceptance.