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 this space. 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.