Creative environment: urban art

Contemporary art might often pop up unexpectedly, but now cities all over the world are finding there is much to be gained from so-called ‘street’ art

From the imposing permanence of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit to the fleeting interventions of the Sharjah Biennial, art in the public realm is becoming an increasingly unavoidable – and sometimes controversial – aspect of modern life. As more and more of us work and live in the great cities of the world, the urban context is providing artists with ideas and a canvas upon which to express them.

Dubai-based Syrian artist Tammam Azzam has put a new spin on things with his work Freedom Graffiti – an image of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss photoshopped onto an image of a Syrian wall. The piece, part of his Syrian Museum series, went viral. But while in some cases public art can be unofficial and even unwanted – most famously the work of graffiti artist turned international star Banksy – planners are increasingly weaving it into the fabric of the city.

“Cities all around the world are generally very function orientated,” explains curator, artist and author of Abstract Graffiti, Cedar Lewisohn. “They’re machines for commerce. Art in public spaces, if it’s good, can add a new layer of emotion to a city, something outside the practical business of day-to-day living.”

Lewisohn was one of the seven speakers at Art in the Public Realm, a conference in Dubai earlier this month. The event, organised by the British Council, brought together art experts from the UK and UAE to discuss this growing trend.

What constitutes good or bad public art is, says Lewisohn, difficult to define but “you know it when you see it”. For Sarah McCrory, director of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, it is “collaborations with interesting people and organisations, rather than lumps in parks” that make it an exciting area to work in. The next edition of this art biennial takes place in 2014, the year the Scottish city – renowned for producing international artists such as Douglas Gordon, Susan Philipsz and Martin Boyce – will be hosting the Commonwealth Games.

“I’m hoping to work in some unusual and interesting spaces like old cinemas and disused buildings,” says McCrory, who curated six site-specific artworks during the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. “There are some great opportunities for funding public art due to the Commonwealth Games. Fingers crossed the commissioners will place trust in contemporary artists, rather than choosing consensus-pleasing faux-architectural metal objects with light beams.”

Of course what works in post-industrial Glasgow won’t necessarily work in Dubai. “Dubai is a very unique context to place art in public – it’s such a new city,” says Lewisohn. “The main issue is that you wouldn’t want the artworks to be overwhelmed by their setting or feel like an afterthought.”

Two things, surely, that any artist working in the public realm would aspire to.