Is Public Sculpture an Anachronism?

Israeli cities seem to see little value in commissioning artworks. Instead we have instantaneous media.

New public sculptures generally don’t go up with much fanfare in Israel. There might be a small ceremony involving the artist, the institution that commissioned the piece and maybe a local reporter. Much of the time there’s no placard with the name of the artist or the work of art.

Tens of thousands of people might pass by a sculpture at an intersection, park or public square, in a forest or a city, without having any idea of who created it or what his or her intentions might have been.

Nor does public sculpture get media attention, despite their prevalence. They are excluded from the history of art and cut off from the modern art scene, in Tel Aviv at least.

The upshot is the public does not distinguish between good work and mediocre work, says Dror Eshed, a 59-year-old environmental sculptor who studied industrial design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and has created public sculptures for the Israel Museum, the Jewish National Fund, the education and housing ministries and various cities.

There is tension between the poetic and metaphorical nature of sculpture and the geographical context of where the sculpture will be placed, and it is this dynamic that sets environmental sculpture apart from most other kinds of artwork. Sometimes, when there are overwhelming financial constraints or divergent worldviews among the institutions funding the sculpture or between them and the artist, this trait becomes the Achilles’ heel of public sculpture.

“Environmental sculpture is part of a system of constraints and restrictions that arise based on who commissioned the work, which is generally a public body,” said Eshed. “In most cases a landscape architect working on the project is involved, and his role is important because he’s the professional within the system and is responsible for the relationship between the environment and the sculpture.”

Unintentionally viewing art

In addition to its place in public areas where people don’t intentionally go to view art, public sculpture can also be seen at two open museums, one in the Tefen Industrial Park in the Galilee and the other in Omer Industrial Park in the Negev, where people can see the latest exhibits and wander around in the sculpture gardens.

The Omer Open Museum is currently showing an exhibit by Ilan Averbuch, who was born in Israel, lives in New York and has had his art displayed all over the world. The exhibit features seven huge sculptures made out of stone, wooden beams, metal, water and glass.

“I work a lot on the space between cultures, in the physical and spiritual sense and, of course, in the personal sense,” says Averbuch. “When I bring my memories into the piece, they are the memories from here and the process they underwent there.”

Even places that have changing exhibits leave them in place for six months to a year because of the financial costs of moving the statues and preparing the ground for the next exhibit.

There are other opportunities for sculptors as well, such as the sculpture symposia that take place in Israel and abroad. There are more than 200 sculptors who work in stone living in the Ma’alot-Tarshiha area in Israel’s north, thanks to the annual Stone in the Galilee International Sculpture Symposium that has been taking place there since the 1990s.

Ada Moran Reiss, a Bezalel graduate and one of the founders of the Green Gallery, which advocates ecologically sound environmental sculpture, says that most of the stone sculptures in Israel’s cities are created at sculpture symposia. Towns that are interested in getting a bit of a face-lift may announce that they are holding a sculpture symposium, notes Moran Reiss.

That’s what Petah Tikva did when it created a park in memory of the late singer-songwriter Uzi Hitman and held two symposia, instructing artists that the theme of the work that would be created during the symposium should be music. A curator worked with the city to deal with the complicated administrative details like ordering raw materials, allocating work space, hosting the artists and getting electricity hooked up.

“Artists who were interested in participating sent in mock-ups, a meticulous selection process was held and ultimately the sculptures were chosen,” says Moran Reiss. “The sculpture symposium lasted for two weeks, at the end of which a closing ceremony was held and the sculptures were placed in the park.”

Artists who design public sculpture have to work within pretty strict parameters, she says. The commissioning body usually specifies the theme of a sculpture, the place where it will go and its dimensions. And since the sculpture is made at the symposium and needs to be finished by the time it’s over, the sculptors need to make sure they can get the work done within about two weeks.

The works of art that sculptors make in the studio, where they can take all the time they want and are not ordered to cater to a specific theme, are the ones that the general public rarely gets to see. But for all the restrictions, Moran Reiss, at least, feels that she still gets to express herself through her art.

“In my work I reveal the beauty that nature creates, and I feel a need to show this to the masses,” she says. “Every sculpture I design is the fruit of my thinking and my imagination. Making the sculpture turns the idea into a tangible object.”

The 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of public sculpture in Israel, a time when sculptures were built for sculpture’s sake and not just to memorialize the dead or commemorate a tragic event. Those were the decades in which artists like Yitzhak Danziger, Dani Karavan and Menashe Kadishman competed for the privilege of creating public sculptures.

Over the past decade, though, public sculpture has been losing steam, partly because the symbolic value of creating and displaying sculpture in the public sphere is no longer very high. Another reason is that the local politicians who had funded much of the public sculpture have lost their belief in sparking a dialogue that engages people who live outside their jurisdiction.

“The 1980s and 1990s were good years for sculpture around the world,” says Drora Domini, who created five public sculptures in those decades but only two (including one on the Tel Aviv boardwalk) in the following 14 years. “It may be that the development of media like photography and video, which have become central to art, have pushed [sculpture] to the margins.”

Another factor may be the high cost of sculpture − between NIS 80,000 and NIS 400,000 for the work of Hadera-area sculptor Avi Tzafon, for instance.

At 63, Domini is resigned to creating a form of art that she says is past its prime.

“Putting up sculpture as a sign of [a life of] ease, quality of life or the reputation of an area is an outdated approach,” she says. “Sculpture in the public sphere is something that people don’t think about anymore.”

Guy Raivitz