Art in Public Spaces: Creating Memory and Community by Design
Review by Suzanne Farkas
Monuments are human landmarks which men have created as symbols for their
deals, their aims and for their actions. Monuments have to satisfy the
eternal demand of the people for translation of their collective force into
symbols," Sert, Leger, Giedron " Nine Points of Monumentality ,1943.1
Cities around the world are grappling with the complex challenge of
remaining viable places to live and work. Part of their challenge is this
struggle to redefine and preserve the quality of their public spaces.
Community is a state of mind but it is intimately tied to public place.
Sustainability of public spaces, particularly green spaces against
vandalism or degeneration, depends on how or what kinds of connection
people have to it. The more people see the relevance in the place they
live, the better the connection, community and space.
Public Art is often seen as an alienating presence in urban
neighbourhoods. Traditionally, Public Art is a tool deliberately designed
to preserve the image, and thereby extend the power of the ruling
authority, class and patriarchal order. This fact is not lost on the
subjects of this authority. From violent disfigurement to the marks of
graffiti, monuments have long been targets of revolutions and other
expressions of resistance.
Recently however, alternative visions of public art are emerging and women
artists throughout the world appear to be leading in their development.
What would women want to remember? How might a woman's monument differ from
the patriarchal monolithic form?
One aspect of monument and public art has never really been challenged.
Monuments by definition are permanent lasting structures with a unifying
authority: one truth, one history, one memory! The enshrining of public
heroes and mythology defines the communal authority while simultaneously
obscuring the personal experience.
The artists who challenge this concept of permanence open themselves up to
professional derision. Why, the very definition of a "true" masterpiece is
its ability to withstand the test of time and idiosyncrasy.
Veronica Verkley is part of a growing movement of installation artists
working with found materials. Veronica however has gone one step further.
Her work does not instill a sense of permanency. In her recent work "Dream
Figures" she has bravely set aside personal ego, to explore the true
essence of Nature, the dynamic of ecosystem and the human's place in it.
"Dream Figures" currently on display in Toronto's Don River Valley,
exemplifies the challenge to monumental authority. Veronica created this
work in answer to a call by the City of Toronto's Environmental Art project
"Ecolage", established under the City's ongoing Public Art program. Ecolage
was created to assist a community group gain public support by encouraging
citizen participation and public awareness for the revitalization of the
Don River watershed. The Don, once an important historical and industrial
corridor, was a unique natural system, now badly polluted and forgotten.
Linking open or wild public spaces with an urban art event encourages
active participation and might change the public's opinion of the value of
As if awakened from the mists of Avalon, the "Dream Figures" sweep over us
with their presence. Oddly I feel a vague memory of an absence long
forgotten. At once I am aware of their ancient looming power almost equal
to the pain of their great loss. Once these woods were alive with spirits
and Mother Earth was our succor.
Verkely blurs the line between species and uses the symbols of "anima" to
explore our concepts of humaness, instinct, gesture, and emotion. The
figures are creatures larger than life, reminiscent of the once common
bird, bear, and elk. The sculptures bear expressive tilts of the head or
leg, cocked in a familiar seemingly human gesture. Evoking memories of a
time when urban was rural, the figures watch the City's commuters as they
pass by. Half hidden by the natural undergrowth, they sadly peer out to the
six lane highway that now severs this valley from the busy residential
district beyond. Consciousness mingles with unconsciousness. These figures
are our markers. They sit on the edge of a once mighty watershed marking
time, place and relationships, our potential and our destruction, our past
and our future, our urban and our hinterland.
Veronica sculpts with found organic materials and underbrush, the cast off
urban debris of trash, car parts and industrial object. Her structures are
designed to change with the seasons and eventually become one with the
surrounding vegetation. Thus, Verkley plays with the temporal nature of
life and edifice. With these elements she expresses the imperfect,
impermanent and fleeting power of memory and of the authority of public
place. Her vision of public monument in this organic form defies
traditional rules of formal sculpture, art and public expression of civic
pride. It is in her choice to subjugate her ego and open her
forest beings up to the elements that bring the work its power. Our need to
be connected to our physical spaces is clear. It confronts us with our own
ephemeral life force. Our patriarchal psyche has set its' conquest as our
perpetual goal, yet Nature is still our master.
Her works are deceptively and disarmingly simple. This encourages
familiarity and the viewer becomes part of the re-creation of memory.
Viewers begin to reflect on their role in creating this urban community,
once rooted in nature and place. As such her work reflects the inner as
well as the external landscape, the personal as well as the monumental.