Public art and its opponents

This is a review of two books – Joanna Rajkowska’s Where the Beast Is Buried (Zero Books, 2013) and Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Duke University Press, 2013) – which appeared in Frieze magazine.



Rajkowska's Peterborough Child, 2012-ongoing - sketch - from
Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child, 2012-ongoing – prep. sketch – from

Recently, a work of art returned to Warsaw after spending almost two years in an anonymous storage centre in a small city in the UK, Peterborough. Joanna Rajkowska’s The Peterborough Child (2012) was commissioned by the city council and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts as part of their joint ‘Arts and Social Change’ scheme, a programme with the aim of ‘creating new connections between people and where they live in order to strengthen participation in community life’. This sounds like the mantra of many public art projects in Britain in the last decade. Rajkowska’s artwork for Peterborough presented itself as a burial pit containing the skeleton of girl who had died 3,500 years earlier, alongside a beaker, the skull of a fawn and other grave goods. These were fabricated in Germany and Poland for installation in a Peterborough park in what was meant to look like an archaeological dig. Nearby, an information plaque was to be installed to identify the ‘The Peterborough Child’ as the progeny of a mother from Eastern Europe. Her child’s death was to have been the result of a rare eye cancer. Rajkowska also proposed highly individual viewings of the installation. Parents of ill children or of those who had died were to be invited to meet the artist at the site or to supply photographs, clothes or written testimonies which would demonstrate ‘the never-ending care of children’ even after death. On the eve of the installation, Rajkowska was invited to describe the project to community groups in the area. The meeting exploded with discontent. The council and the Royal Society pulled back from the project, fearful, it seems, of the unpredictable wave of anger that was stirring.

The unfinished history of ‘The Peterborough Child’ is one of a number of episodes that Rajkowska recounts in her new book, Where the Beast is Buried. Each chapter charts the origins and fate of her public art works in Poland (her birthplace), Sweden, Palestine, Turkey, Germany and the UK (where she lives today). Other sections take the form of interviews with the artist. What is striking about the book is that it recounts more failures than successes, at least when completed schemes are tallied up. A two-year project to dress a historic factory chimney in Poznań in Poland as a minaret from the Grand Mosque in Jenin on the West Bank failed in 2011 after an often rancorous public discussion that drew in the local Muslim community, the Historic Conservation Office, the city authorities, school children, right-wing commentators, academics and architects working on nearby regeneration scheme. Killed off by bureaucratic indecision, the funeral procession for the scheme was ‘The March Backwards’ made by the Minaret’s supporters from the cathedral to the city’s former synagogue. Heading backwards and stumbling as they looked at the church’s twin spires, they were saying something about progress. After all, Poland was once a multi-confessional state.

Rajkowska has, it seems, an intuitive knack for ideas for public art which attract deep enthusiasm and splenetic opposition. In fact, her schemes are far less important as modes of representation than for their capacity to spawn what Bruno Latour would call acts of representation by others. Welcoming the Minaret project, Essiekh Mohamed Saleh, president of the Muslim League in Poznań, said: ‘We do a lot of things in Poland, but we still remain invisible’, whilst local architects revealed their thin-lipped ethnocentrism by declaring the Minaret project as being ‘culturally alien.’ Where the Beast is Buried does not so much record Rajkowska’s projects as these responses. Commissioning bodies – which espouse an inclusive rhetoric about cultural dialogue or social participation – turn out to be paralyzed by a fear of unpredictable exchanges. And often, it seems, the final decision whether or not to make a work of public art does not rest with the agencieswhich have been charged with this role.

Is Rajkowska settling old scores? Maybe, but Where the Beast is Buried is far more interesting (and readable) than that. Rajkowska offers an extraordinary and often painfully intimate description of her experiences. It becomes clear that The Peterborough Child was an attempt to come to terms with the terrible fact that her own baby daughter, Rosa, was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer, bilateral retinoblastoma, in 2012. Elsewhere, the reader follows Rajkowska’s response to the death of her mother after enduring Alzheimer’s Disease. Rajkowska decides, in her words, to become her own mother, by enacting her escape from hospital. ‘I had the impression that my mother had filled me, that she had entered all my orifices, that I was defenceless against her and her fear.’ The effort seems to lead to her own breakdown. These often disconcerting autobiographical passages – interwoven throughout the histories of her schemes – make it clear that this unusual book takes the form of a testimony and, like all testimonies, its claims on truth lie not in objective facts but in the closeness to the events described. Made by an individual, they are public acts: testimonies have to be voiced or written for others.

Tom Finkelpearl’s book What We Made also employs testimony. It features 15 interviews and conversations made in 2004–11 with artists, critics and participants in various kind of interactive, collaborative or participatory art and architecture – hence the pronoun in the book’s title. Looking back, they reflect on the motivations for and effects of making different works of participatory art either in America or at least in the country’s long shadow since the 1990s. Finkelpearl has a close relationship to the subject too as the Executive Director of the Queens Museum of Art since 2002 and before that as a curator at MoMA PS1.

The book behaves like its subject – each chapter is a conversation. Finkelpearl interviews some conspicuous names including Grant Kester, an art historian who published a key book in 2004, Conversation Pieces. Community and Communication in Modern Art, and artist Tania Bruguera, amongst others. Unsurprisingly, most of his interviewees are advocates for collaboration, albeit not uncritical ones. Sometimes Finkelpearl leaves the talking to others: artist Wendy Ewald converses with social scientist Sondra Farganis about ‘Arabic Alphabet’, an installation that she made with Arabic-speaking kids from Jackson Heights for Queens Museum just after 9/11. Finkelpearl calls on participants too. He interviews Jay Dykeman, the owner of Jay’s Quick Gas in Portland, Oregon, who dreamt of filming a version of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses on his garage premises. Dykeman’s vision was realized – brilliantly, and in a bespoke fashion – by artist Harrell Fletcher in the 2002 film Blot Out the Sun. Mechanics and customers performed for Fletcher’s camera and the resulting film was screened on the forecourt. There is clear merit in Finkelpearl’s approach. If we want to judge the claims made by the champions of social cooperation in the arts – those who’ve pinned Joseph Beuys’s 1974 proclamation that ‘every living being is an artist’ on the doors of their hearts – then it is important not only to record the experience of curators and artists, but also non-professionals who were swept up into participatory art schemes too. Dykeman might be a living illustration of Beuys’s vision, though almost ten years later he does not recognize himself as an artist. That remains Fletcher’s domain.

Some of the conversations in What We Made were conducted almost a decade ago (before much participatory art was cast so vigorously as a ‘nightmare’ or as ‘artificial hells’ by writers like Claire Bishop, herself an interviewee). Occasionally, the time lag tells (and Finkelpearl admits as much). But there is much about this book which is current. Attempts to model alternative modes of education are mapped out in vivid reflections on the Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group established by Mark Dion in the early 1990s and Bruguera’s thoughts on the Cátedra Arte de Conducta in Havana (2002–09). The role of the artist as curator of the skills of others or, as architect Teddy Cruz puts it, as ‘cultural pimp’ as well the pervasive desire to demonstrate the everyday usefulness of art in the face of its spectacularization by the market are recurrent themes. Some less convincing preoccupations of the present surface in these conversations too, such as attempts to quantify the social benefits of participatory art and housing design schemes.

Finkelpearl presents his social collaboration both as a critique of America, a country that he describes in conversation with Bishop as an ‘extreme form of self-oriented individualist society’, and as an attempt to demonstrate the vitality of ‘America’s most significant contribution to philosophy, pragmatism’. In fact, the conclusion to What We Made offers a kind of a posteriori thesis which sets out to reclaim the thinking of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey who died in 1952 and in particular the idea that truth – for which we might read ‘art’ – is made in the act of inquiry and through social interaction. This is not the first time that Dewey’s ideas have been resurrected. In the 1970s Richard Rorty turned to his writings to mount a postmodern attack on universal values, whilst nevertheless admitting that Dewey ‘insisted’ in a rather un-postmodern way ‘that only point of society was to construct subjects of capable of ever more novel, ever richer forms of human happiness.’ Here is the forthright claim on progress which motivates many of Finkelpearl’s conversationalists too. Is this another version of American can-do? After all, if Rajkowska’s book is a critical balance sheet that seizes failure and even trauma to make its points, then Finkelpearl’s claims the social importance of success.



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