Public Art as Public Authorship: Jochen Gerz’s Future Monumentand The Public Benchin Coventry City Centre.
The occasion for this essay is a Public Artcommission, the Future Monumentand the Public Bench– two related public artworks constructed by Jochen Gerz for the newly designated Millennium Place in Coventry City Centre. This Public Artcommission was directed by the Phoenix Initiative – Coventry City Council’s city centre regeneration project is due for completion in November 2003. The regenerated area will run from the locale of the two Cathedrals (the modern and the part-destroyed old cathedral to which it is connected) to the Museum of British Road Transport, towards the north of the city centre.
This essay concerns Gerz’s concept of ‘Public Authorship’, and was written after a series of discussions, seminars and lectures on Jochen Gerz’s work attended largely by my students and students of Coventry School of Art and Design [CSAD]. It is indebted to Jochen Gerz and deliberately reflects the ideas that emerged from the discussion during these events. For the past four years Gerz has been a visiting professor at CSAD, and has involved students extensively in his Public Artresearch.
Thereare many artists commissioned by the Phoenix Initiative:
Françoise Schein, David Ward, Alexander Beleschenko, David Morley, (an established poet based at the University of Warwick) Susanna Heron; Kate Whiteford, and Chris Browne. The reason Jochen Gerz’s project has become the focus of my attention is the way his Public Art projects involve a significant degree of reflection and analysis of the current cultural function and aesthetic meanings of Public Art. For four years Jochen Gerz has been involved in public negotiation, consultation and community-based research in Coventry. The Future Monumentand The Public Benchare not merely works of art, but products of extensive inquiry and debate concerning the nature of ‘the general public’ of Coventry, their specific history, identity and social ideals. The Future Monumentand the Public Benchthematise relationships and enmity. During the initial stages of the commission Jochen Gerz distributed an information leaflet for the people of Coventry asking them, ‘Who are the enemies of the past?, ‘Who are your modern friends?subject matter was potentially explosive, and caused some anxiety for many members of the City Council. However, Gerz diplomatically diffused the controversy and pressed ahead.
The Future Monument will be a 4.6m high obelisk made of a glass compound whose surface appears shattered; it will be lit up internally at night, and feature plaques engraved with the names of former enemies who are now, or will be, friends. The Public Benchruns along the north rim of the square, will be made of concrete and wood, 45m long, and feature plaques of names and dates of local people. The theme of the artworks has become more complex after September 11; Gerz, however, is no stranger to the social complexities of such a project, and moreover regards the objects as just one aspect of a larger process of social dialogue.
Jochen Gerz (Born Berlin 1940) is both author and subject of numerous articles and books. He began his professional life as a translator, poet and journalist, has worked in several European countries and now lives in Paris. In the 1960s he founded a co-operative publishing press, began making visual art involving photography and text, and in the 1970s was involved in many projects involving video, installation, performance, workshops and lecturing. He exhibited at the German pavilion with Joseph Beuys at the Venice Biennale in 1976. Since 1984 he has concentrated on installations and Public Artprojects being awarded the Roland Prize, Bremen (1990); German Art Critics’ Prize, Berlin (1996); National Order of Merit, Paris (1996); Peter Weiss Prize, Berlin (1996); National Grand Prize for the Plastic Arts, Paris (1998).
Gerz’s most famous project is probably the Monument Against Racismin Saarbrücken, Germany, 1993. It began as a kind of performance art where Gerz and collaborators lifted the cobbles in the Schlossplatz and inscribed their undersides with the names of Jewish cemeteries that existed in Germany before WWII; the stones were then replaced. The work was later officially sanctioned and the square renamed Square of the Invisible Monument. Gerz’Harburg Monument Against Fascism in Hamburg in 1986 (realised in collaboration with Esther Shalev-Gerz) involved a similar ‘anti-monument. A 39-foot high pillar coated in soft lead was erected in a shopping area and passers by were invited to sign their names (as a gesture against fascism) with a provided steel pen. As the names covered the accessible surface the pillar was gradually lowered into the ground and in 1993 finally disappeared. The top of the pillar only, level with the pavement, remains visible.
This essay is divided into two sections: Firstly, Authorities(both commissioning bodies or city councils responsible for public space, and ‘authoritative concepts’– the criteria that often regulates the concept of ‘artthe minds of the public). And secondly, Citizens (articulating some of the problems involved in consulting the public about Public Art). The objective of this essay is conceptual – simply to construct a working definition of Public Authorship. As Gerz’s work is still effectively in process, this research is still largely speculative. Moreover, there are many issues and questions that arise in the course of this essay that cannot be adequately answered; and when categorical statements are made on ‘the nature of Public Artare intended as a provocation to discussion, not dogmatic assertion.