Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy: A Manifesto by Siah Armajani
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Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy: A Manifesto by Siah Armajani

Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, by Siah Armajani. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Siah Armajani is perhaps best known today for his works of public art—the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (1988) and the Gazebo for Four Anarchists (1993) being two examples in the immediate vicinity of the Walker. “Public art does not mean large works of art in public space,” Armajani has said. Rather, “the critical condition is art which finds itself in the social context.” Given this definition, one could say Armajani has always been a public artist. Indeed, his works from the late 1950s (made when he was a youthful supporter of the first democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh) take the form of “night letters,” or political leaflets that would circulate under the cover of night. They contain carefully placed messages such as “Mossadegh’s way,” “Oil is ours,” and “Freedom is ours.” Other works, such as a series of Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Rooms (from the late 1980s and early 1990s), commemorate two Italian immigrants who were prosecuted, and eventually executed, for their radical anarchist beliefs in 1920s America. On the occasion of Siah Armajani: Follow This Line, the artist’s first major US retrospective, we present Armajani’s “Manifesto: Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy.”

“I embrace the common. I explore the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, you may have the antique and the future.”

1. Public sculpture is a logical continuation of the modern movement and the enlightenment which was tempered and conditioned by the American Revolution.

2. Public sculpture attempts to demystify art.

3. Public sculpture is less about self-expression and the myth of its maker and more about its civicness. Public sculpture is not based upon a philosophy which seeks to separate itself from the everydayness of everyday life.

4. In public sculpture the artist offers his/her expertise, therefore the artist as a maker has a place in the society. The social and cultural need support the artistic practice.

5. Public sculpture is a search for a cultural history which calls for structural unity between the object and its social and spatial setting. It should be open, available, useful and common.

6. Public sculpture opens up a perspective through which we may comprehend the social construction of art.

7. Public sculpture attempts to fill the gap that comes about between art and public to make art public and artists citizens again.

8. Generally speaking, public sculpture is not of a particular style or ideology. It is through action in concrete situations that public sculpture will become of a certain character.

9. Public sculpture has some kind of social function. It has moved from large scale, outdoor, site specific sculpture into sculpture with social content. In the process it has annexed a new territory for sculpture that extends the field for social experience.

10. Public sculpture believes that culture should be detectable geographically. The idea of region must be understood as a term of value. It is in politics. Why not in culture?

Detail of Siah Armajani’s Gazebo for Four Anarchists: Mary Nardini, Irma Sanchini, William James Sidis and Carlo Valdinocci (1993) in Loring Park, Minneapolis. Photo: Barbara Economon

11. Public sculpture is not artistic creation alone but rather social and cultural productions based upon concrete needs.

12. Public sculpture is a cooperative production. There are others besides the artist who are responsible for the work. To give all the credit to the individual artist is misleading and untrue.

13. The art in public art is not a genteel art but a missionary art.

14. The ethical dimensions of the arts are mostly gone and only in a newly formed relationship with a non-art audience may the ethical dimensions come back to the arts.

15. We enter public sculpture not as a thing between four walls in a spatial sense but as a tool for activity.

16. There is a value in site in itself but we should keep our preoccupation with site to a minimum.

17. Public sculpture is not here to enhance architecture in or out, nor is architecture here to house public sculpture in or out. They are to be neighborly.

18. Art and architecture have different histories, different methodologies and two different languages.

A sketching event on Siah Armajani’s Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge. Photo: Malanda Jean-Claude

19. The use of the adjectives architectural in sculpture and sculptural in architecture, for the purpose of establishing analogy, simile, metaphor, contrast or similarity between public sculpture and architecture is no longer descriptive or valid.

20. Public sculpture puts aside the allusion, the illusion and the metaphysical supposition that the human being is only a spiritual being who was misplaced here on earth. We are here because home is here and no other place.

21. The public environment is a notion of reference to the field in which activity takes place. The public environment is a necessary implication of being in the community.

22. Public sculpture depends upon some interplay with the public based some shared assumptions.

23. There is a limit to public sculpture. There are also limits in science and in philosophy.

24. Public sculpture should not intimidate, assault, or control the public. It should enhance a given place.

25. By emphasizing usefulness public sculpture becomes a tool for activity. Therefore we reject Kantian metaphysics and the idea that art is useless.

26. Public sculpture rejects the idea of the universality of art.

Siah Armajani, Fallujah, 2004–2005

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