Of what meaning is public art? Can it rearrange people’s interpretations of their spaces? Who stands to gain from the disruption? ART STATE Senior Writer Thato Rossouw files his report on the Public Art Project which was recently held at Hoffman Square as part of Free State Arts Festival
Mornings in downtown Bloemfontein’s Hoffman Square seem to all follow a similar, monotonous and humdrum routine. It takes only a few times of spending your mornings there for the square’s distinct and rigid rut – which begins at the break of dawn and sees many of the square’s passers-by, who personify South Africa’s economic inequalities, spend the entire day walking through the square lost in their thoughts and oblivious to the rest of the world – to become easy to spot and eventually envelope you into its rote. It is a space filled with people but devoid of any life; a space only definable by the monument around which it was built.
But, unlike with other mornings that saw this depressing South African sketch continue undeterred, the mornings between the 17th and 21st of July brought a twist to this depressing routine, and the pathos of the have-nots scraping through life at the feet of a monument built to commemorate their former invaders received a much needed disruption.
At the helm of this disruption was a VryFees associated exhibition called the Public Art Project (PAP). For five days a group of people went to the square to use public art to interact with the day-to-day happenings of the square, perhaps in an effort to connect with the city.
Like with many other public spaces throughout the country, Bloemfontein’s Hoffman Square (which was named after the first President of the Oranje Free State, and was established in the’30s) is a space where the past meets and some might even say lords over the present.
It is a space where people, on a daily basis and unbeknownst to them, weave otherwise scattered psychological battles into meaning in an effort to define themselves in a space that celebrates, in a grandeur manager, people who historically caused them suffering.
A space overshadowed by conflict, where extreme ends of the same economy sometimes meet and the symbols of the past stain the blank pages upon which many are trying to rewrite their stories.
In the centre of the square, standing tall with its Roman-esque architectural style is a monument erected in commemoration of Bloemfontein people who perished during the first and second world wars. Surrounding the monument are more modern structures built by the government to revamp the space. They are decorated with more contemporary and slightly African-esque art pieces.
As a result of this toxic mixture of artistry, though, the Square is transformed into a space overflowing with different kinds of art and art pieces – contemporary, historic (or, more accurately, old), permanent, and temporary – but is somehow disconnected from the times and people who share it. It is a space that, contrary to its intended purpose, flows in a perpetual act of forgetting and erasing – which therefore makes it important for one to say that, by bringing temporary public art to the Hoffman Square, the Public Art Project brought a relief.
Art in public spaces, and the disruptions and changes it brings to those spaces, are things that have fascinated many in the past. For many years, things like the role that art plays in public spaces and the changes it brings to those spaces, and to the people who come into contact with it, have been the subject of many debates, and have had people spent many years trying to understand.
A lot has been said on these topics and, while many might disagree on what the effects and changes in discussion might be, a whole lot more people seem to agree on one single thing: that having art displayed or erected in public spaces does bring changes to those spaces – both aesthetically and otherwise – and to the people who come into contact with it.
This seemingly universal reality was to be realised in Hoffman Square during the week of the Public Art Project as, with every day that went by, the space slowly moved from being an area for absentminded automated walking and morphed into one where many questions were asked by both the artists and the audiences.
The questions asked varied as much as the live performances that were made, and the installations that were put on display throughout the week. The live paintings of two abstract works titled “Perspectives of Perception” by the artist Kezia Gerber provoked engagements from the public. Another project that struck the chord with the masses is the art and dance show called “In These Streets” by Wezile Mgibe. Other pieces, like Peter Burke’s theatrical intervention “Mishap”, invited the audience to take part in the performance and make them question societal norms, while the rest of the performances brought joy and laughter to the audience through dance, music and theatre.
All was not smooth sailing, though, as confusions between what types of art would be conducive for the creation of this dialectical and “awakening” atmosphere within the square, and what type would cause confusion in the audience – and would therefore be better left out of the itinerary – puked at the bubble of the organisers throughout the week.
The reactions of the audience to the art offered oscillated between confusion and enjoyment, and this caused some confusion. It was important that the organisers knew what types of art would resonate best with their desired audience, and their ignorance to this important fact, which was made clear through the selection of certain performances, became a thorn on their sides.
These misplaced performances, or aspects thereof, such as the music played during the Onesie World segment on the last day, brought to the space an atmosphere that was more invasive than it was opening; they created a disjuncture between the art (and artists) and the people they were performing for – a sort of us-and-them impenetrable barrier.
It could have all been avoided, honestly. In a Ted Talk titled “How Public Art Changes Public Spaces” that she gave earlier this year, Curator Vardit Gross alluded to the fact that public art must intervene and question one’s day to day activities and that it must deformalise them with what has already been taken for granted.
It is therefore important for a curator or director of a public art project to know the societal makeup of a place before deciding on the type of art they will take to it, because it is from this knowledge that they will find a curatorial genesis that will allow them to curate a show to the fullest potential of the space.
But, whatever glitches they might have faced throughout the week, the organisers of the exhibition succeeded in bringing colourful public art to a space whose own colour was beginning to ebb. For five days, Hoffman Square was abuzz with smiling faces and questioning minds and, like Picasso had propounded the purpose of art to be, the art offered throughout the week washed the dust of daily life off the souls of all who experienced it, and they left, at least by some measure, different people having done so.
Thato Rossouw is Senior Writer at ART STATE. For his idle babblings on Twitter, follow @Thato_Rossouw
Photo credits: Dopeshots