In the process of publishing my last piece on Juan Muñoz's Tate Modern retrospective, I came across a photo of one of the artist's last works that took me aback. Treze a rir uns dos outros (roughly translated from Portuguese as Thirteen Laugh at Each Other) was originally installed in the Jardim da Cordoaria in Porto Portugal in 2001 in association with Porto2001, a citywide cultural celebration.
It was startling to see the piece, bronze surface originally spotless and gleaming, now ghoulish and roughed-up with street grime of a criminal sort. In April 2006, when the photo above was taken, vandals had recently sprayed the public art piece with bright blue paint. All three figures wore a coat of this on their faces. On the third figure, supine at the base of the composition, white paint was added to the figure's chest and crotch. There was also a marking on the sculpture's forehead, a signature or tag from the decorator who wanted to mark their handiwork I suppose.
Don't get me wrong. My umbrage isn't due to the fact that the piece hasn't remained untouched. Public art is built for immediate and outside-the stuffy-museum interaction.
It should be affected by its location, exposed to the elements and all passersby. Because the hope is that the converse becomes true as well: the location and the people walking past are also affected by the work.
But that interaction can be taken in a creative direction. Take the recent sculptures that were created by members of the community, anonymously and under the cover of night so to speak, to interact with the pieces already in place at the Olympic Sculpture Park outside the Seattle Art Museum. A nest with three baby sculptures was left at the base of Alexander Calder's Eagle. The triplets emerged from their shells, literally, as miniatures of their mama—bright red and prickly-edged.
Roxy Paine's 50-ft. chrome tree, Split, was duplicated on a tiny scale by an anonymous person or group as well. The note left near the work only said that the little sapling's title was Splinter.
Preying on the vulnerability of the work is such an easy, lazy and small-minded course of action. If you are going to take a swing at a public artwork, at least make it sharp-witted or quirky or thoughtful. Not the typical mindset of a vandal, I know. But at least if you are going to go through the effort of leaving your mark, make something with a message that will live longer than the 15 minutes it will take the city clean-up crew to wipe away the lame stain of your intellectual and creative turpitude.