A revival of public art as freedom from a pandemic

From a giant violin-shaped boat in Venice to 500 flags in Albuquerque, cities see liberation from a lockdown in cultural expressions free to all.

A string quartet in Venice, Italy, plays onboard a violin-shaped boat built during the pandemic by artist Livio De Marchi.

For the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, art was not a mirror of reality but a hammer with which to shape it. That idea may explain why so many cities are supporting artworks in public spaces during the pandemic. The art is safe to view and can lighten people’s spirits. It also helps restore a community’s social fabric through a cultural vitality.

The latest example comes from Venice, the Italian city whose art and architecture are already pretty public. Over the weekend, residents along the Grand Canal were entertained by a 40-foot wooden boat in the shape of a giant violin. On the deck was a string quartet playing the works of Vivaldi, a famous musical son of Venice. Both the performance and the violin boat were a tribute to those lost to COVID-19 and a symbol of rebirth.

Also in September, Toronto launched the first of several temporary works designed to “rebuild our city post-pandemic and bring about a renewed sense of hope and vibrancy,” according to Mayor John Tory. The initial artwork is a sculpture of icebergs made almost entirely of plastic foam. It is described as a contrast to the impermanence of melting ice.

The city of Albuquerque has opened a temporary installation of more than 500 black and white paper flags designed by local artists. The flags represent different experiences of the pandemic. They reflect the “hardships and determination that defined our experiences through the pandemic,” says Mayor Tim Keller.

Then there is Paris. Although not originally designed during the pandemic, an ephemeral installation by the late artist Christo has drawn huge crowds since its opening Sept. 18. Before his death in May last year, Christo had arranged a wrapping of France’s most important monument, the 164-foot-high Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées. Wrapped in blue-gray fabric for just three weeks, the arch has been transformed from a tribute to Napoleon’s military conquests to one now seen as a liberation from a lockdown.

All of Christo’s works – most were wrappings – celebrated freedom, whether it is the free admission to see the works or the freedom to interpret them as one sees fit. The artist was known for not accepting limits, such as his bureaucratic battles to have his visions approved and installed.

As with most public art, everyone involved from officials to tourists is part of the work. They talk about the art and bring meaning to it, perhaps finding a common light in each other. In doing so, they weave new bonds of community. Or as Brecht might say, they are hammering a new reality. As the pandemic recedes, many cities are again finding the liberating power of public culture.

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