Land art is more than just a pretty space

Article By:

Principal | Chief Executive Officer

“We need [land] art, in the arrangement of cities as well as in other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us.” - Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Like many high school or post-secondary students, I took advantage of Explore—a program offered by the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada. I spent six weeks in Montreal, attending French classes and exploring the city. My friends and I roamed the streets every day, travelling to the Italian quarter for bagels or to Old Montreal for a walk on its cobblestone streets.

What I didn’t recognize then, but I do now, is how public space and land art shaped the way I think of Montreal. It took me back to 21 Balançoires (21 Swings), an installation that was custom-made for the Promenade des Artistes in the Quartier des Spectacles. I remember children, teenagers and adults enjoying the swings (myself included). I felt an unbridled sense of joy, swinging back and forth in the middle of a busy city surrounded by tall buildings and honking cars. I fell in love with Montreal because of how exciting each public space became, regardless of whether it was a public park or shared street.

Land art has intention

“Public art humanizes the built environment and invigorates public spaces. It provides an intersection between past, present and future, between disciplines, and between ideas.” – Americans for the Arts

In How to transform surface lots into new, beautiful destinations, I touched on the importance of land or public art and its ability to bring communities together and influence where people want to live, work or play. Public art is an extension of the community, and it’s not as simple as plunking down a sculpture outside of a building. There’s the intention behind land or public art, and how it addresses real issues facing the community or, to a larger extent, society.

There are many examples throughout the world where land or public art has provided commentary on current social issues facing us. Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn created two large hands, called Support, rising from the waters and holding up the side of a building in Venice, Italy, acting as a warning of the impending dangers of climate change. The Fearless Girl sculpture in New York City, facing opposite the Charging Bull, has encouraged and sparked conversations around gender equality and women in leadership. According to USA Today, “After her installation, on the eve of International Women's Day, the "Fearless Girl" [drew] widespread attention. Tourists [took] countless pictures with the girl and dressed her with both pink Pussy hats from the Women's March to red Make American Great Again caps from President Trump's campaign.” And, in Calgary, a 12-metre-tall, bent-wire head of a young girl called Wonderland, created by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, “represents the hopes and dreams of young Albertans and the youthful energy of the tenants.”

What each of these examples reflect is how land or public art extends far beyond the confines of the space. It shapes, critiques and captures the history, time and essence of where it’s placed, creating “more vibrant expressions of human imagination.” It’s a collaborative process to create a piece of permanent land art that has longevity. Artists, city councillors, government, design firms and communities work together to create a piece of public art that evokes a stronger sense of place and identity. It can also integrate within the built environment, “[breaking] the trend of blandness and sameness” and addressing issues such as health, safety and wayfinding.

Land art and people-first places

“When we think about memorable places, we think about their icons—consider the St. Louis Arch, the totem poles of Vancouver, the heads at Easter Island. All of these were the work of creative people who captured the spirit and atmosphere of their cultural milieu.” – Americans for the Arts

In Winnipeg, MB, Nuit Blanche attracts tens of thousands of people downtown to engage with land art and lighting installations every year. Each installation acts as an icon, promoting connectivity throughout the city’s downtown. For a city that suffers from urban sprawl and a lack of “people-first places”, Nuit Blanche is a welcomed anomaly. It throws away people’s perceptions of Downtown Winnipeg as a scary, dirty or dull place, and replaces it with a playground of activities. The Impulse Seesaw installation at Old Market Square in 2018, produced by Quartier des Spectacles and created by Lateral Office and CS Design, was such a fun installation and a fond relic of people’s childhood. The seesaw would illuminate and produce sounds when people played on them.

Furthermore, what’s important to note, in regard to Nuit Blanche’s success in Winnipeg, is that not all land or public art has to be permanent. Temporary installations can invoke the same feelings as a permanent installation, enhancing the space and transforming it into a destination—even if it’s just for a short amount of time. In February, Design Quarter Winnipeg worked with Artbeat Studio to create a lighting installation at Old Market Square over top of the ice rink. Draping lights throughout the trees that criss-cross over the top of the rink may feel like a simple concept in theory, but it enhances the space, adding colour to the snow and giving the entire area extra light. It acts as an invitation for people to use the rink. But what’s more, because the installation is also temporary, it provides urgency for people to come and see it, engage with it and enjoy it before it’s too late!

Whether it’s permanent or temporary, public art ultimately creates a new experience within that place. We can’t tear down buildings and build new ones every year, but we can bring in land or public art to create a fresh experience for people who engage with that space, and in turn, improve their health and wellbeing. My colleagues have written extensively on the power of how public space can improve mental and physical health and illnesses, challenging ways “to improve our designs and create multifunctional spaces that inspire a sense of community, promote active lifestyles and reduce environmental stressors and issues relating to social inequality.”

To sum it up

Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist who works at the intersection of psychology and architectural and urban design, found that “art integrated throughout a city physically slows us down in the world that’s often hyper-paced, influencing how we move, think and feel, even when we don’t realize it.” It also evokes positive emotions, “[making] us feel alive.”

What Ellard’s findings corroborate is what designers have known for some time: that land art is a powerful tool for cities. It reminded me of Globe and Mail columnist Andre Picard’s article, Walkable cities are better for our health and economy. He discusses the need for planners, designers, government and decision-makers to commit to creating “people-first places”, writing, “If you want healthy communities, you need to create a sense of space, of belonging; you need to build inclusive, diverse spaces”. Land art can help build this kind of environment, encouraging people to take their happiness and pay it forward.

From health to economics to beauty—land art is a tool that influencers, decision-makers and authorities must use to encourage growth and a stronger sense of place for people living there. In the long run, it will boost a city's equity and inspire young people to stay put because innovation and creativity are right outside their door. Land art offers more than beautification of public spaces. It’s a way to tell the history of a place or add to the cultural identity of the community. It can improve people’s emotional state and take them on a journey of imagination, driving business and increasing the overall health of the area. Land art can set a city apart, cultivating a progressive identity filled with unique icons and messaging. There is power in public art.

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