Opening Spaces: poetry as public art

Sue Hubbard

The growing possibility for poetry to expand into the realm of "Public Art" is an exciting and challenging one. For this to happen in a way that is dynamic and not merely incidental, it is important to look at the changing positions of both gallery based and public art in order to define a possible role for poetry. For poetry to engage in these arenas, with meaning and vitality, it is necessary to ask what can be gained by removing it from its historic home of the white page and the slim volume to place it in the public realm. What is it that might be achieved?

The traditional role of public art has been to enshrine and memorialise. It has made heroes of the dead and the great and, often, the not so great. The archetypal equestrian statue plopped down in some hidden city square or park, riding high on its plinth, ossified and valorised the subject for all time, as a moment of frozen history. The function of such pieces was largely civic and social. The equestrian statue was not democratic, neither did it grow out of the vernacular or the concerns of ordinary people. Its role was to endorse the status quo. Essentially hierarchical, it was art - if art much of it could be called - that was imposed from above by the powers that be. It largely reflected a world where the rich were cocooned in their castles and the poor man stood, forever tugging his forelock, at the gate.

By the 1970s Art and Language, an international group of Conceptual artists, was using conversations, discussions and theoretical texts as the basis for its art. The use of 'the word', by the artist, is therefore, nothing new. There has been a long tradition in Modernism of artists using, some might say appropriating, text. This grew from the Modernist desire, exemplified in Ezra Pound's statement to 'make it new', for visual subversion and the extension of what might be considered the conventional boundaries of 'art'. Words became signs of protest, as in Wyndham Lewis's famous manifesto of Vorticism, Blast, created in a range of harsh, angular and mechanistic typographies. Or as in the graphic poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky's Left Left Left, in his collection Reading Out Loud, published in Berlin in 1923. In time, this fusion of 'text' with 'political' and 'theoretical' positioning would lead to work such as the quirky, anarchic, postmodern aphorisms of Jenny Holzer flashing on and off in public spaces like Piccadilly Circus. In such work 'critical theory' has transmuted into 'art'.

Poetry is essentially a private act. Conceived and written alone, it is predominantly read alone. It is a contemplative and often highly charged form, the most emotionally unmediated of the high arts, for language is something shared by us all. For the artist 'text' does not function in the same way. 'Text', by its very nature, is an appropriation borrowed from contemporary cultural theory. When an artist uses 'text' its impact is primarily visual. The word becomes a signifier or a sign where meaning is flagged rather than revealed as a continuous sense or thought. When an artist decides to employ text, his or her concern is as much to do with the sculptural, typographical nature of the word, as with the disclosure of its meaning. The physicality of the text, for the artist, is dominant, so that it functions rather as a logo or trademark might. Neither are poems simply placed in the public arena 'public art' - such as those on the Underground or the buses - however enjoyable they may be for the bruised and harassed mind to encounter in the madness of the rush hour. They are just that, poems placed in public spaces, for they do not grow out of a spatial or architectonic dialectic with the locality, or out of any relationship with the place in which they have been sited.

For poetry to blur the boundaries and become 'public art' it must engage with the discourse of the discipline it wishes to 'become.' The poem, therefore, is only part of the whole oeuvre - the kernel perhaps - but the visual impact has to have equivalence to the literary value. By this I mean, that the poet has to become aware of three-dimensional space, as opposed simply to the flat surface of the white page. The work needs to have a visual and conceptual dynamic, a spatial rhythm to echo its poetic musicality. It needs to grow out of and engage with the space in which it is to be situated rather than be imposed on it, in order as Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space, "to unlock a door to daydreaming."

Genuine 'public art', within a contemporary cultural context is, therefore, as open and democratic in its forms, manifestations, conception and siting as possible. It is not simply placed in the street or the square by a decree from above but evolves, more and more as a process involving maker, commissioning agency and community. Public art is not about the monumental, as Jochen Gerz's proposal for the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square wittily exemplifies. His iconoclastic suggestion, for it to be covered with a square of lovingly tended turf from the home ground of whichever team was the current English Football League Champions, was humorous, provocative and truly populist. Public art is about reframing a relationship with the modern world where the needs of the individual are all too often subsumed by those of the corporate. Poetry, as public, art has a place in this redefinition of how we wish society to look in the 21st century. The tenets of late modernism asserted that art had no 'useful' social role. Art existed only for art's sake, self- defining, self-critical, self-reflexive. But there seems now a growing desire for openness, contact, accessibility and wholeness. This new emphasis heightens the role of the communal and the environmental, but in its non-elitist approach still leaves space for individual day dreaming. This paradigm does not replace modernist aesthetics. It cannot be about naiveté or nostalgia. Rather it repositions public art, and the poetic voice within its sphere.

Many of today's art projects will be temporary interventions in neglected spaces of the city ripe for regeneration, or endangered rural areas. The temporary nature of this work allows for subtle and modest intentions. Poets and artists can work with community groups and schools, old people and youth clubs to create temporary installations relevant to the needs and vision of a particular community. Neglected sites of inner city architecture can be reclaimed short-term as subjects and sites for poetry. The historic function of an abandoned building can act as a catalyst to the creation of poetry as public art. Other buildings such as colleges, hospitals, doctor's waiting rooms would benefit from 'visual' poetry sited in their midst. Poetry as art, or art as poetry should enter these spaces not as a decorative palliative but as reflective aesthetic dialogue. Poetry placed modestly, wittily, sensitively with visual awareness in such localities can humanise and heal, teach and reassure. It acts as a catalyst for a sense of well being, identity, and even happiness.

What both artists and observers are beginning to realise is that public art (and this is particularly true of poetry as public art) can touch that clandestine, hidden, even sacred part of ourselves, whilst appealing and referencing the outer social being in the wider fabric of society. The poem in the public space allows for a convergence of the sacred and the profane, the covert and the overt, the inside and the outside. ... Public art has broadened from the valorising heroic sculpture of some forgotten general on his park plinth into work that grows, more and more often, out of the collaboration of artists, makers and local communities. It is within in these opening spaces that poetry may find its place. .

[A transcript of  Sue Hubbard's contribution to Public Poets, Public Poems, Public Art on 28 September 1999, British Library, London]