Art in the Public Sphere

As I went walking on a summer's night, I came across a little lamb. His fur was soft and cuddly white and he frolicked in the glorious green...gas station?!

Not exactly what I had expected, but then again... this is New York City. "Curated" by Michael Shvo, Sheep Station will be drawing the curiosity of art-lovers and taxi-drivers alike until it closes on October 20. The installation features Francois-Xavier Lalanne's Moutons (sheep) grazing idly in a pasture built into the Getty gas station at 24th and 10th Ave.

While enchanting, the work has also been stirring up seeds of controversy. Apparently, repurposing the station has left people in need of fuel a bit high and dry.

In truth, this particular gas station was already on its way out...Sheep Station is merely a stop-gap on the station's journey to its final destination--luxury high rise apartments (just what we need!) Do people looking for a gas station know this, though? Probably not.

From their perspective, this art piece means the potential of breaking down in the middle of Manhattan.

Whether it is actually controversial or simply misunderstood, Sheep Station got me thinking about how art interacts with life and where people start to get protective over public space.

We all know that art can be (and is often) controversial. From Picasso to Piss Christ, viewers time and again have questioned, "What was this artist thinking?" In order to understand it, I try to remember that art exists in a liminal space, whereby it does not abide by the rules of our typically functioning society. This applies to the content of the work, its structure, and the place in which it is presented. Most people are fine with art in liminal space...

as long as that space is confined to a pedestal at the Met or bought online through Christie's. It is when the boundaries of art blur into actual spaces that the public's attitude towards art is tested.

If someone does not agree with where a piece of art has been placed--say, Central Park, they deem it to be "bad art" without considering the piece itself.

I'll give you two famous examples of New York-based art that were controversial solely because of their location:

1. Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, 1981

Commissioned by the Arts-in-Architecture program of the U.S. General Services Administration, this 120 feet long and 12 feet high curving wall of steel essentially severed the Federal Plaza in half.

Estimated at $175,000, the work received public outcry as soon as it was erected. A hearing took place to decide whether it should be removed and after years of litigation, the piece suddenly vanished in the middle of the night...

On the side of Tilted Arc: Serra was commissioned to do the piece (i.e. asked to do it specifically) and it was site-specific, meaning that it was made for that plaza alone and relocating it would destroy it.

The complaints: The piece not only bisected the heavily frequented plaza, it blocked the sun in a city where we have to fight for our Vitamin D. It also supposedly impeded surveillance of the plaza, putting the area at greater risk of a terrorist attack.

2. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates, 2005

From February 12, 2005 to February 27, 2005, land artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude gave Central Park a makeover. Previously known for wrapping Pont Neuf and the Reichstag in fabric, the pair brought their expertise to New York City in the form of 7,503 vinyl gates that ran for 23 miles through the park.

Suspended from the top of each "gate" was a billowing panel of saffron fabric. The construction and material costs for this piece estimated $21million.

On the side of The Gates: The piece was aesthetically stunning, especially in juxtaposition with the snow-covered park. According to the documentary The Gates, 2007, the installation brought nearly 4 million visitors from around the world to Central Park.

Additionally, Christo and Jeanne-Claude funded the entire project on their own without aid from government grants or corporate money.

The complaints: Even initially, this project was a turn-off to many locals, environmental protesters, leaders, and park officials. It took 26 years for the idea to get off the ground and the criticism raged on as the project moved towards fruition.

Common complaints were that The Gates "ruined the park," were "harmful to wildlife," and "had no real meaning." Some people even argued that Central Park was already art, and you "can't put art on top of art" (says who?).

I guess what the underlying controversy boils down to is this: Do we value art enough to allow it to interfere with our everyday activities? If we are inconvenienced a little by something that is capable of providing a "greater good," will we get angry? Or will we embrace a new way of thinking? Take it case by case and check out Sheep Station in Chelsea in the meantime.