Why public art?
Every artist has a set of personal goals, interests, and needs that need to be satisfied. I want to have conversations with a greater audience, work on a large scale, research and experience new people and places, explore a variety of concepts and materials, and offer something unique to break up the monotony of everyday life. While studio work allows me to address some of these criteria specifically, public art is the only art form I have experienced that can address them as a whole. One particular interest that public art satisfies is my appreciation of community. Community is incredibly important to me personally, and thus a vital characteristic to my public works. This notion was reinforced early in my career by the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which highlights the ramifications of social interaction. My work discusses a variety of topics from westward expansion to overprotection, but is always founded by the importance of community. Public art, especially site-specific works, allows me to become intimate with a particular site, environment, and neighborhood members. Public art not only requires an artist but more importantly, a team of dedicated people that appreciate and celebrate artistic intervention in public space.
Your humor and personality is often seen in your work. How does interacting with the public influence this personality, and on future or current projects?
My work is really a direct reflection of my interests, humor and personality. In fact, I think a small portion of my soul is imbued in each work I create. I regularly recall the experiences of main character Basil Hallward in Oscar Wilde’s book The Picture of Dorian Gray, as he discusses his inability to exhibit his work. “I know you will laugh at me,” he replied, “but I really can’t exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it.”
For me, public art is a constant conversation and not a statement. Each project I create offers a specific and unique experience and is thoroughly documented and analyzed. If there was a particular interaction that was intriguing in one I will explore it in new ways in future projects.
What are the beginnings of the Stair Squares?
The original Stair Square proposal used the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the installation site. Unfortunately, months of emails and phone calls got me virtually nowhere. During this initial phase of the project I was still located in Cleveland, and at this same time period Christo and Jeanne Claude were lecturing at Severance Hall. I remember the presentation like it was yesterday: I was sitting in the balcony on the edge of my seat listening to the craziest and most inspiring lecture of my life. Afterwards, I approached Christo and Jeanne Claude, interrupting their socializing in the process, to talk to them about my project. Jeanne Claude listened to every sputtered word and looked at all the images I offered. She then wrote their fax number on a sheet a paper, and told me to fax her over the details the following week when they returned to New York. I did as she commanded, and within hours of my fax she replied with contact info for several curators at the Met and informed me that she already spoke with them about my project. In a matter if days, I was having serious discussions with the Met about the project. And while the Stair Square project was never installed on the famous Met steps (due to liability issues) this chance encounter with Christo and Jeanne Claude began the chain of events that led to the installation at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Their sincerity and generosity will never be forgotten.
Where are the Stair Squares now?
Since the Stair Squares were designed and fabricated specifically for the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, there weren’t many options for their afterlife. So, after the installation all 12 went into storage in Downtown Brooklyn. They stayed there untouched for about five years. Then two were sent to a collector in Cleveland and one was sent to a collector in NYC. Sadly, the rest were taken to a metal recycling company in Brooklyn and turned into structural beams. Unfortunately the pieces in Cleveland have been discarded so the piece on display is the sole survivor from the original installation at Brooklyn Borough Hall.
How do you respond to the inherent temporariness, the politics of opinion, and bureaucracy of place that’s involved in public art?
I am not sure there is inherent temporariness in public art (at least not in the particular area of public art that I am engaged). In fact, most public art is designed to last a minimum of 25 years before any maintenance is needed. So, I would argue that the temporariness of public art is purely the impact and conversation it has with the individuals in the immediate community. Most permanent pieces end up becoming as overlooked as the surrounding architecture. I think it’s important for cities to have a balance of permanent and temporary pieces to ensure the public is constantly being challenged and engaged. I believe Public Art is about having a conversation and not making a statement. There is an excellent reading that pertains this this topic – One Place After Another: Site Specificity and Locational Identity by Miwon Kwon. It doesn’t talk particularly about temporariness, but it does discuss the importance for artists to consider the specific environment permanent works are placed in, to ensure that the conversation with the local community is valuable and important. This article is also an excellent transition to the political facet of public art. The public art process is saturated with bureaucracy, public opinion, city policies, and assortment of logistical constraints. But I embrace it all! At times it’s aggravating and painful – it’s a constant push and pull – but the challenge is what makes the work exciting. At the end of those months and years of diligent work and persistence, the project is realized and there is no greater feeling in the world (Except for space travel, I can assume that space travel is probably better).
Mark A. Reigelman II is a Brooklyn-based artist specializing in site-specific product design, installations, and public art. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the Cleveland Institute of Art, OH, and an Advanced Product Design Certificate from the Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, UK. Reigelman’s work has been exhibited in public spaces, galleries, and museums across the country including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Port Authority Bus Terminal, NY, and Brooklyn Borough Hall.