Look before leaping into criticism

20:47, Nov 27 2012
NEW VIEW: Spanish artist Juanjo Novella with the five-tonne sculpture at Miyazu Park.

Two new sculptures at Nelson's eastern entrance, Nau mai ki toku Ahuru Mowai by Juan Jose Novella and Terry Stringer's Dance to the Music of Time have provoked the usual reactions from those who might wish that Nelson City Council had agreed with American conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, who said: "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more."

The objections come in two main categories. First, cost, with objectors reasoning that money spent on public sculptures could be more usefully spent on other council projects, and second, what we could loosely call "aesthetic" objections.

Here are a few examples of aesthetic response extracted from last week's Nelson Mail Mailbox: "That great gangrenous phallic symbol", "a big green thingy", "the traffic distracting statue [that] from a distance resembles someone sniffing their armpit", "the rusty children's trap", "the rusty honeycomb and the green thing".

I'm sure the sculptors won't be concerned. To quote Barnett Newman, "Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds."

Council arts planners should not despair either. Response, whether negative or positive, is in itself part of the bedding-in process of a public work and its future existence as part of the cultural fabric of a community.

Art historian Professor Harriet F Senie, in an essay titled Responsible Criticism: Evaluating Public Art, underlines this when she says, "Every public space has an evolving history of multiple uses, visual, social and political, that directly or indirectly influence, if not determine, both artistic and audience response [to a work]."


War memorials, one of Senie's areas of expertise, are good examples. Arguably not often great works of art, the associations they have, the ceremonies that have taken place around them, the children who have climbed on them and whose parents have gently reminded them of a memorial's purpose and then told their little ones stories about soldiers in their family: this sort of relationship with the community is part of the life of public art.

Taste is of course personal. Anyone is entitled to think and say what they like about any piece of art. But perhaps it's the teacher in me that makes me wish the current critique of public sculpture had just a fraction more depth than that which has appeared in the paper so far.

In 2005, Awa Press published art writer and curator Justin Paton's brilliant How to Look at a Painting in which he discusses in 15 entertaining and accessible chapters how to enrich the experience of looking at paintings.

It's probably presumptuous, but it occurred to me that his advice on how to look at paintings could be adapted to help Nelsonians look at public sculpture.

This does not mean approving of every piece the council commissions. Why should it? We all have different tastes and ideas. But it does mean treating works of public sculpture seriously, even if only because serious money has been spent on them.

So I offer the following advice for looking at sculpture, adapted with thanks from Justin Paton's list of "suggestions" for looking at paintings.

1. Respect the object itself. An established artist spent thought, time and energy on it. Those who commissioned it were serious in their intent, spending ratepayers' funds for the benefit of all of us. A sculpture deserves respect, even if it doesn't immediately appeal to you.

2. Look slowly. Be prepared to take your time looking at a sculpture. Look at it from different distances and angles. Walk around it, sit and look. Ideally, view it at dawn and dusk, in the middle of the day and at night. The sculpture may reveal different qualities as the environment around it changes.

3. Don't allow yourself to have opinions without observations. Ask the question "What do I notice?" before answering "What do I think?" A quick judgment is not always a good judgment. I'm sure you can recall other instances when spending time thinking about something paid off in a better decision.

4. When you think something is "missing" from a sculpture, for example, a proportion (too small, too big) or a particular texture or colour, ask yourself what the sculpture gains by not having those features. What do you notice in their absence?

5. Look at the space around the sculpture. How does the sculpture fit into and with its space? Consider the immediate surroundings and the medium and far distance. How does the sculpture "talk" to its surroundings?

6. If a sculpture doesn't feel as if it's for you, try to imagine the person who it is for. In this way, you can step outside your accustomed tastes. You may find this experience unexpectedly interesting.

7. And if, after an honest attempt at this process, a sculpture gives you nothing, then turn your back on it.

You've certainly given it a fighting chance and your opinion, whatever it is, will be worthy of respect.

And you may even find you enjoy the journey.