Public Art Highlights for 2022

Contributing curators together with UAP's curatorial team select their best public art for the year

Public Art Highlights for 2022

UAP is delighted to present this year's Best of Public Art. 2022 is another impactful year for art in the public realm. Many visionary and timely public art projects have allowed us to examine what it means to be human, to voice and to express, and to bring communities and ideas together.

UAP's Director | Curatorial Natasha Smith and Associate | Senior Curator Ineke Dane have partnered with internationally recognized curators to reflect on the stand-out public art projects of 2022. The contributing curators this year are Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director at Het Nieuwe Instituut; Tandazani Dhlakama, Assistant Curator at Zeitz MOCAA; Luise Faurschou, Founder and C.E.O. at Art2030; and Xiaoyu Weng, Carol and Morton Rapp Curator and Head of Modern and Contemporary Art at Art Gallery of Ontario.

According to Natasha Smith, “we see a very political round-up once again this year, provoking viewers to confront geo-political realities of our current times. There is a focus on First Nations voices, all revealing new truths, from UAP’s own nominations, with the work of Judy Watson and Richard Bell of Australia, to Xiaoyu Weng’s nomination, with the work of Brian Jungen of Canada. We also see a continued focus on the questioning of the ‘monument’ in Aric Chen’s nomination by Hew Locke, presenting a playful subversion of a historic symbol to question and reveal alternate readings. There is beauty, like that in Tandazani Dhlakama’s nomination by Tino Sehgal, an exquisite experiential performance-based work. Overall, it is a compelling list and one we hope readers will enjoy exploring for its depth and diversity. As we reflect on the year passed and another outpouring of creativity in some tumultuous times, I turn my mind to the future in anticipation of what the year ahead will also bring, a hope for calmer waters ahead.” 

Ineke Dane noted, “it’s humbling to pause and be reminded of the immense currency of public art. That the audience may experience a work, without crossing a potentially intimidating or inaccessible threshold into an institution, is invaluable in its affording democratic engagement with creativity, and the oft-urgent contemporary issues artwork expounds. We’re truly thankful to this year’s contributing curators and the generosity with which they’ve shared their public art highlights of 2022.

Best of Public Art 2022: Full Project List with Commentary from Curators

Aric Chen

  • Hew Locke | Foreign Exchange, Victoria Square, Birmingham

Coinciding with Birmingham's hosting of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, a vestige of the British Empire, Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke transformed the city's statue of Queen Victoria into a crated figure amongst several replicas of the same statue, now placed on a boat. Called "Foreign Exchange", the work evokes and conflates the statue of the Queen and the empire she represented as it was shipped around the world. As we rightly reconsider, and in some cases take down, monuments ennobling problematic figures and legacies, Locke acknowledges his "confused and complex" sentiments, adding nuance to the debate while still confronting it head-on.

Foreign Exchange by Hew Locke, a temporary public artwork presented by the Birmingham 2022 Festival and commissioned by Ikon. Photo by Shaun Fellows. Courtesy of Birmingham 2022 Festival and Ikon

Foreign Exchange by Hew Locke, a temporary public artwork presented by the Birmingham 2022 Festival and commissioned by Ikon. Photo by Shaun Fellows. Courtesy of Birmingham 2022 Festival and Ikon

  • Fujiko Nakaya | Munich Fog (Fogfall) #10865/II, Munich, Germany

This outdoor fog sculpture, mounted on the side of Haus der Kunst in Munich, was remarkable as an announcement for "Fujiko Nakaya. Nebel Leben," the major retrospective of the 89-year-old Japanese artist's work that was shown with numerous other installations inside. Nakaya is relatively unsung in the West, but she is absolutely seminal; part of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) collective that included John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and others in the 1960s, she made her first outdoor fog sculpture at the 1970 Osaka Expo and has been going strong ever since – a true pioneer of phenomenological art who foreshadowed Olafur Eliasson and others by decades.

Fujiko Nakaya, installation view of Munich Fog (Fogfall) #10865/II in “Nebel Leben” at Haus der Kunst, 2022. Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of the artist and Haus der Kunst, Munich.

Fujiko Nakaya, installation view of Munich Fog (Fogfall) #10865/II in “Nebel Leben” at Haus der Kunst, 2022. Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of the artist and Haus der Kunst, Munich.

Tandazani Dhlakama

  • Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi | Equations for a Body at Rest for CIRCA 2022, Birmingham, UK

Through her multi-site, multimedia project, Equations for a Body at Rest, Johannesburg based artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi offered us intriguing ways of thinking about imperialism and its contentious legacy. Using film, posters and a reference website that was easily accessible through QR codes, she highlighted the spectacle, history and contradictions of the Commonwealth Games. This was presented as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival in the UK, during the Commonwealth Games from 6 July to 7 August 2022.

Nkosi’s critique took the form of three presentations. Equations for a Body at Rest included The Name Game, a series of posters displayed at various billboard sites around Birmingham. It also included The Same Track, a film consisting of archival footage of previous Commonwealth Games screened in various public spaces. Here Nkosi intentionally removed the athletes from the film in order to draw attention to the performance and pageantry between the coloniser and the colonised, thus pointing to questions about the purpose and place of the Commonwealth from inception to today. The third element was the Equations for a Body at Rest reference website which served as a gateway for further critical discourse and closer reading.

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, installation view of Equations for a Body at Rest in Birmingham, England, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Eastside Projects.

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, installation view of Equations for a Body at Rest in Birmingham, England, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Eastside Projects.

  • Sotrama Photo by the Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali

A Sotrama is a means of public transportation in Mali. They are often green vans or minibuses that carry passengers on fixed routes around the city. In addition to the driver, sotrama’s often have touts who collect fares and give information about the journey, mediating between the driver and passengers. This year, L’Association des Femmes Photographes et Artistes du Mali initiated Sotrama Photo which offered diverse audience in Bamako the opportunity to engage with photography and share stories on their daily commute.

The president of the Association Fatoumata Diabaté said she felt compelled to engage with people, “huddled together in the languor of the day.…pressed between hope and discouragement.” Sotrama Photo involved transforming a sotrama into a mobile photography studio. Here passengers were urged to pose for a photograph, engage with existing photographs of other passengers and dialogue about the issues of the day. In this case, the tout was an actor who interrupted the dreariness of the day by encouraged discussion and enabled commuters to laugh, reflect and participate in various ways. However, Sotrama Photo did not just end there. The vehicles had strategic stops in key neighbourhoods where the Association would host film screenings and have community discussions about important issues. The photographs from the sotrama’s were later presented at NEGPOS Gallery in France and in several locations in Mali. The Association’s vision is to develop the photography sector in Mali and to strengthen the place of women in the cultural sector in general and in photography in particular, and they continue to do just that in poignant ways.

The Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali, Sotrama Photo, 2022. Courtesy of the Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali.

The Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali, Sotrama Photo, 2022. Courtesy of the Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali.

The Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali, Sotrama Photo, 2022. Courtesy of the Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali.

The Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali, Sotrama Photo, 2022. Courtesy of the Female Association of Photographers and Artists in Mali.

Luise Faurschou

  • Shirin Neshat | Woman. Life. Freedom., London, UK and Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

This work from Shirin Neshat is an urgent public commission that embodies the Iranian fight for freedom and basic human rights. Broadcasted 1-4 October 2022 across London's Piccadilly Circus and Pendry West Hollywood in Los Angeles, the work serves as a powerful accompaniment to the slogan being voiced across Iran: "Woman. Life. Freedom."

On September 16, Masha Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died after being detained by Iran's so-called morality police on charges of improperly wearing her hijab. The news of her death while in state custody was met with outrage throughout the country and beyond, prompting protesters to take to the streets.

Through a combination of urgency and care, Shirin Neshat selected two pivotal works from her Women of Allah series (1993-1997) titled Moon Song and Unveiling. In a statement on the piece, Neshat said, "For me, the meaning of the text and the bullets (in Moon Song) suggests the modern and contemporary reality of Iran, while the paisley and other floral motifs are symbolic of Iranian's rich ancient Persian history."

The current humanitarian crisis in Iran affects us all. Any fight for justice, and any protest to protect women's rights impact our global community. With Woman Life Freedom, Shirin Neshat encapsulates feelings of defiance and hope – which resonate with her strongly at the moment. But most importantly, the artist evokes the idea of solidarity, inviting people around the world further to echo the rallying cries of Iranians for freedom.

Shirin Neshat, installation view of Woman. Life. Freedom. on Piccadilly Lights, London, 2022. © Shirin Neshat. © CIRCA. Photo by Clover Green Studio. Courtesy of the artist and CIRCA.

Shirin Neshat, installation view of Woman. Life. Freedom. on Piccadilly Lights, London, 2022. © Shirin Neshat. © CIRCA. Photo by Clover Green Studio. Courtesy of the artist and CIRCA.

  • Tino Sehgal | Special Project in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna for Art City Bologna 2022, Bologna, Italy

Tino Sehgal's critical acclaim derives from his radical artistic practice that takes the form of 'constructed situations': live encounters between visitors and those enacting the work. Like no other, Sehgal rearticulates art spaces as a ritualistic environment of social interactions. Thus, the conventional subject-object relation is challenged and redirected into a fleeting production of implication, engagement, connection, and belonging.

The site-specific intervention that Sehgal conceived for Piazza Maggiore – for centuries a place of meeting and exchange, surrounded by medieval palaces and the imposing Basilica of San Petronio – saw the participation of 45 dancers and performers, whose bodies and gestures were used as an artistic and human material to transform the iconic square into an open-air museum, engaging visitors and passers-by in a social experience of mutual exchange.

The fact that Sehgal's works are produced in this way elicits a different kind of viewer: a visitor is no longer only a passive spectator but one who bears a responsibility to shape and contribute. His works may ask visitors what they think, but more importantly, they underscore an individual's own agency in the museum environment. 

Portrait of Tino Sehgal in Piazza Maggiore on the occasion of ART CITY Bologna 2022. Photo by Ornella De Carlo. Courtesy of MAMbo - Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna.

Tino Sehgal in the courtyard of Palazzo d'Accursio, on the occasion of ART CITY Bologna 2022, photo by Ornella De Carlo, Courtesy MAMbo - Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna

Xiaoyu Weng

  • Charles Gaines | Moving Chains, 2022, New York City, New York

A monumental-sized kinetic installation by LA-based conceptual artist Charles Gaines, Moving Chains features nine rows of custom-made steel chains, continuously rolling atop of a wooden structure resembling a ship's hull. Situated on New York's Governors Island, along the waterway of the New York Harbor, the installation is a powerful commentary and critique of the history of slavery and systematic violence inherent within racial capitalism foundational to the United States. The moving speed of the eight chains matches up the harbour's currents while the middle, rusty ninth chain travels faster than the rest to resemble the boat traffic in the city's waterway, which since the early colonial occupations, had become a significant site for the transatlantic slave trade.

Facing the Statue of Liberty, the symbolic power of the chain brings out contradiction and complexity as it mirrors the broken shackle and chain on lady Liberty's right foot—a representation of abolitionism. Walking through the body of the ship, the loud and rhythmic noises of the rolling chains engulf visitors from above, reminding us that the weight of history cannot and will not be silenced. As one of the artist's first public art commissions, Moving Chains took Gaines, who is most known for his grid-and number-based drawings, 8 years to realize due to numerous funding and engineering challenges, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of three-chapter public art series titled The American Manifest, Moving Chains is one of the most powerful public art works presented this year.

Charles Gaines, installation of Moving Chains on Governors Island, 2022. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of the artist, Governors Island Arts, Creative Time, and Time Square Arts.

Charles Gaines, installation of Moving Chains on Governors Island, 2022. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of the artist, Governors Island Arts, Creative Time, and Time Square Arts.

  • Brian Jungen | Couch Monster: Sadzěʔyaaghęhch'ill, 2022, Toronto, Canada

Revealed in June on the intersection of Dundas and McCaul Streets in the Canadian city of Toronto, Couch Monster: Sadzěʔyaaghęhch'ill is a bronze sculpture cast in the shape of a circus elephant assembled from cut-up leather couches. This public art project by artist Brian Jungen began with the story of Jumbo, a captive circus elephant who made international headlines when it was hit and killed by a train in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada in 1885. The inspiration to use cut-up furniture as his medium first came to Jungen when he was visiting Toronto in 2017 after seeing discarded furniture on the city's street. Juxtaposing different materials, textural, and subject matters, Jungen connects the misfortunes of large wild animals who had been caged, used, and often tortured by humans for entertainment with the destiny of once luxurious and status-elevating but now torn apart home goods, evoking empathy through the engagement of familiar everyday surroundings. The casting of the surface of the leather sofas is hyper-realistic, conjuring the leathery texture of an elephant's skin.

The work's subtitle, in the Dane-zaa language of Jungen's Indigenous heritage, translates to "My heart is ripping." When Jungen asked elders in his community what they thought of circus elephants, they didn't recall ideas of joy but how the animals' "spirit had been broken" by their captors. Jungen's elephant seems to be performing a stunt of standing on a ball; its four feet can barely fit and balance. What's underneath the playful appearance of Couch Monster begs the difficult yet necessary reflection on humanity's cruelty. The history of violence, control and imprisonment goes much beyond Jumbo's tragedy, as witnessed in colonialism and slavery. Commissioned by Kitty Scott (AGO's former Carol and Morton Rapp Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art), the work took Jungen five years to complete and is now part of the Art Gallery of Ontario collection in Toronto.

Brian Jungen. Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill, 2022. Bronze, stainless steel, Overall: 378.5 × 332.7 × 557.5 cm. 4032.5 kg. Commission, with funds from the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter program, The Renette and David Berman Family Foundation, Charles Brindamour & Josée Letarte, Bob Dorrance & Gail Drummond, Angela & David Feldman, Hal Jackman Foundation, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, T. R. Meighen Family Foundation, Partners in Art, Paul & Jan Sabourin, an anonymous donor, and with funds by exchange from Morey and Jennifer Chaplick, 2022. © Brian Jungen. 2022/1

Natasha Smith & Ineke Dane

  • Judy Watson | bara, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Judy Watson’s matrilineal family are from Waanyi country in northwest Queensland. Her oeuvre – which includes painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture and video – is inspired by Aboriginal history and culture. It is often concerned with collective memory and uses archival documents to unveil institutionalized discrimination against Aboriginal people and hidden histories of Australia’s past.

In May 2022, internationally recognized First Nations artist Judy Watson, unveiled her new work, bara, at a headland ceremony overlooking Sydney Harbour, on the Tarpeian Precinct Lawn above Dubbagullee (Bennelong Point). The work celebrates the First Peoples of Sydney, the traditional custodians of Gadigal Country and honours clans of the Eora Nation. Judy worked with local Elders, Uncle Allen and Charles ‘Chicka’ Madden, in developing her concept and collaborated with UAP in the design, fabrication and installation of the work.

Featuring a monumental bara, the fishhooks crafted and wielded by Gadigal women for thousands of generations, the work has a gleaming finish reminiscent of local seashells. Women fished from their nawis (canoes) in the harbour, hauling in catches with bara tied with carrejun or carrahjun (bush string), to cook on open fires. Watson’s use of marble poetically subverts a traditionally colonial material to represent a new monument to First Nations people. The shining marble exquisitely echoes the brilliant, tiled surface of the Sydney Opera House and reflects the moon by night. The crescent shape also reflects the shapes of the moon, the coves of the harbour, the forms of the Sydney Opera House and the arch of the Harbour Bridge.

Of the work, Watson states, “…bara re-imagines ancient gathering spaces where people sat by fires on the headlands and feasted.’’ Curatorial Advisor to the Eora Journey, Hetti Perkins states that “bara emerges out of an ancient and enduring Eora cultural context to eloquently express the nexus between the political, social and natural landscapes of historical and contemporary Sydney.’’

Judy Watson, installation of bara in Sydney, Australia, 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Courtesy of the artist, the City of Sdyney and UAP | Urban Art Projects.

Judy Watson, installation of bara in Sydney, Australia, 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Courtesy of the artist, the City of Sdyney and UAP | Urban Art Projects.

  • Richard Bell | Pay the Rent (Australia) 2022, Kassel, Germany

Installed in arguably the most high-profile position in this year’s documenta15, Aboriginal artist Richard Bell’s Pay the Rent (Australia) was unmissable atop the Fridericianum Museum’s façade in Kassel, Germany. The work, a long black digital sign displaying a bright red, impossibly long figure that increased exponentially by the second, calculated in real-time the amount of debt owed to Aboriginal People from the Australian Government since Federation in 1901, using an algorithm embedded with compound interest and inflation.

Bell’s work was curated into the preeminent, quinquennial showcase of international art by Artistic Directors ruangrupa, a Jakarta-based artists’ collective who built the foundation of documenta15 on the core values and ideas of the ‘lumbung’ (the Indonesian term for a communal rice barn). Pay the Rent (Australia) sang in chorus with the lumbung artistic and economic model – rooted in principles of collectively and equal allocation – asking how the status quo in Australia might look different with a radical shift in perspective.

While Bell says he doesn’t mean for the work to be taken too literally (because a dollar figure would never truly compensate for over two centuries of genocide and cultural oppression), he hopes it raises urgent discussions about the exploitation of Aboriginal people and emphasize that Australia ‘…is still our country. It always was, always will be Aboriginal land.’

Pay the Rent (Australia) is a siren to the legacy of colonial projects worldwide and those who continue to benefit from these today.

Richard Bell, installation view of Pay the Rent at Fridericianum, Kassel, 2022. Courtesy of the artist; Milani Gallery, Meanjin / Brisbane; and Documenta.

Richard Bell, installation view of Pay the Rent at Fridericianum, Kassel, 2022. Courtesy of the artist; Milani Gallery, Meanjin / Brisbane; and Documenta.

Read past surveys of public art highlights at Artsy can be read here: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018.

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