The Con of Temporary Art ?

Much of the debate about art in public and public art in the past 50 years or so has flowed from objections to the fixity of the outcomes, particularly where they are physically located as immutable objects in public space. The argument goes that, as static signifiers, they can only be received by certain groups whose culture matches that of the art that is produced, that their longevity contributes to this as they become irrelevant, ignored or co-opted by political, economic or social forces for other purposes (branding of place at best and political propaganda at worst). Artists tend to resist this. For instance James Young identifies the rise of the German counter-monument in his eponymous essay where new forms of monument embrace their own degradation over time, or enforce their own disappearance, in an act of atonement and recognition that time and society change form and meaning, “…by formalising its impermanence and even celebrating its changing form over time and in space, the counter-monument refutes this self-defeating premise [of permanence] of the traditional monument… resisting its own reason for being the counter-monument paradoxically reinvigorates the very idea of the monument itself” (Young, 1990: p.77). Young particularly refers to Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s Harbourg Monument Against Facism (1986), a lead column with the signatures of local people (tags, scrawls, graffiti etc.) inscribed on it. This column gradually sank into an excavated space beneath the column over a period of 7 years.

Nevertheless both government and commercial entities continue to focus on permanence, prioritising discrete, readily identifiable works by well-known artists whose association with a project adds value to the cost/benefit equation. The resulting object can be readily pointed out as the outcome, as opposed to any of the ‘soft’ social outcomes put forward as an alternative legacy. Thus there has evolved a polarisation between the permanent work desired by commissioners which is ‘bad’ and the temporary work advocated for by ‘radical’ artists and critics which is ‘good’. In this vein critical collaborators Claire Doherty and Paul O’Neill offer a critique in their writings which champions a durational approach to art in public to counter the fixed and static monument, a stereotype which they argue still informs many contemporary regeneration and the built environment projects:

“We need to tackle the perception that a public art work should be permanent; why should the legacy of a temporary public artwork not be as keenly felt culturally as a permanently sited commemorative statue, why should public art not have time limits ? Places are not static sites onto which public art is grafted; rather regeneration is a continuous process to which artists are contributing…At its most challenging, public art is the beginning of a conversation that changes the way in which we interact with the world around us; at its most conventional, it is a full stop.” (Doherty, 2010)

Doherty objects here to the practice of inserting a permanent object as a short term fix (we’ve made this place pretty so it will be all right, now we can move on to the next place) which needs to be replaced with a long term commitment to supporting social and cultural change. Doherty and O’Neill also value the ephemeral and temporary as a counterbalance to commodification, spectacle and “over-production”:

“…the durational approach is not simply a call for longer term projects or for the commissioning of temporary versus permanent artworks, but rather for the potential of short-term and durational projects to be realised as part of longer-term, cumulative engagements which recognise the process through which small-scale, limited constituencies gather for a finite period of time around particular projects. This would require the rejection of the itinerancy and over-production that has characterised public art commissioning over the past ten years, in favour of embedded, committed practice for emerging curators, artists and commissioners, alongside funding and commissioning opportunities committed to longer lead-in times and fewer predetermined outcomes.” (Doherty and O’Neill, 2011: p.13-14)

That art in public has relevance over and above environmental improvement and that temporary projects have a cultural legacy is becoming less controversial and certainly quick fixes are undesirable at many social, aesthetic and political levels. Nevertheless to dismiss permanent work altogether is problematic. Firstly there is an issue with what is actually meant by ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’. What are these actual time frames and on whose scale are they measured – does an artwork have to last 1 year, 7 years, 25 years or 1000 years to be permanent – why is a work that is meant to endure for 25 years less of a “conversation” than one which lasts a minute? Also if one accepts that the meanings of art in public space are also constructed by sensual and contextual experiences (as well as the conceptual and textual outcomes captured by the documentation of a temporary art project) then surely it is better for the work to remain in situ for as long as possible in order to be accessible to as many people as possible? Even if an artwork doesn’t change physically this does not necessarily mean that its signification won’t change in ways which reintroduce different or subversive meaning. Take for example the adoptive naming of sculptures like Dhruva Mistry’s River Goddess (1993), a classical bronze sculpture and fountain depicting a female nude in the middle of Centenary Square, Birmingham, commissioned by the local authority with funding from sponsors like multinational banks. This is exactly the type of permanent artwork that is the subject of Doherty’s critique, and yet is so popular locally it has been “…affectionately dubbed ‘The Floozy in the Jacuzzi’” (BBC, 2010). This appropriation of its respectable subject matter of Indian mythology (which could be interpreted as a ‘politically correct’ nod to multi-ethnic population of Birmingham) through a soubriquet which reflects more the bawdy night life of the city which goes on around it every Saturday night, demonstrates the redistribution of meaning which can take place over time through popular agency.

Another objection to the rejection of permanence within the field of art in public space is that, in environmentalist terms, some of the fundamental principles of sustainability as a function of the minimal consumption of resource over time are ignored. Some see a crucial role for art in public space to lead by example in terms of sustainability. Public art agency Chrysalis Arts have gone to the length of publishing a sustainability checklist for projects, as Kate Maddison, the Director of Chrysalis says of their project:

“Art has an ability to reflect and potentially influence our behaviour and public art is by its nature in the public eye. Chrysalis Arts believes it has a role to play in promoting responsible behaviour in this context. It soon became clear that we needed to disseminate this information widely, as the issues need to be dealt with by everyone involved in the process of planning, commissioning and implementing public art.” (Public Art Online, 2010)

It is tempting also to say that pragmatic expedience is a factor in adherence to temporary projects for public space as a primary methodology. It is much easier in terms of cost, planning and politics to get permission for a temporary work than it is to get planning permission for a long-lived work if there is any sort of risk involved in subject matter or form. In this sense temporary projects are actually less risky for the authorities than permanent projects as there is less pressure for them to be popular politically. For this reason temporary projects are in a way less likely to make any major impact on authorities and gatekeepers of public space (let artists vent their spleen/go nuts for a few days and then we can get on with business as usual).

At its core though, for artists at least, the question remains one of whether priority should be given to aesthetic risk or to the moral imperative to act for the wider benefit of the human species. Taking a line through the writings of Jacques Rancière, Claire Bishop, Grant Kester et al.: is priority given to works which will require consensus as a prerequisite of permanence or is the ideal the ability to introduce antagonistic forces into the public sphere as part of a temporary intervention? What though if, in the same way that modes of dissensual practice act to mediate between subject and context, it were possible to intervene in a physical environment which existed similarly as a mediated, in-between space ? Here there might be the potential for “permanent” interventions which act dissensually and are mutable physically or relational over time, keeping an eye on the changing future of that environment and rejecting by intent a fixation of signification, art as relational infrastructure. This could offer a way of radically reorienting the accepted parameters of the permanence of art in public to develop more explicitly a “longer term cumulative effect” as part of a “conversation” which is more sustainable, accessible and egalitarian than the glossy pictures of a temporary project in a coffee-table monograph.


BBC. 2010. Birmingham’s ‘Floozy in the Jacuzzi’ unveiled after £300k facelift. BBC 08/10/2010.

BISHOP, C. 2004. Antagonism and relational aesthetics. October Magazine, Fall, 51–79.

DOHERTY, C. 2010. In the public eye. Arts Professional.

DOHERTY, C. & O’NEILL, P. (eds.) 2011. Locating the producers: Durational approaches to public art: Valiz, Amsterdam.

KESTER, G. 2011. The one and the many: Contemporary collaborative art in a global context, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

PUBLIC ART ONLINE. 2010. Developing a sustainable approach to public art – new guidelines [Online]. Public Art Online. Available: [Accessed 19/05/2013].

RANCIÈRE, J. 2010. Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics, London and New York, Continuum.

YOUNG, J. E. 1990. The counter-monument: memory against itself in Germany today. In: MITCHELL, W. T. J. (ed.) Art and the public sphere. Chicago (IL), London: University of Chicago.

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