x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The centre of attention

Public art is hard to get right. Taste is subjective, artists frequently sleepwalk through their government commissions and the barracking of municipal projects is a daily pastime the world over.

Motorists safely pass sculptures on Airport Road in Abu Dhabi.
Motorists safely pass sculptures on Airport Road in Abu Dhabi.

Public art is hard to get right. Taste is subjective, artists frequently sleepwalk through their government commissions and the barracking of municipal projects is a daily pastime the world over. Still, if you insist on taking the plunge, the first thing to make sure of is that your monument doesn't contribute to road accidents. It's a lesson the inhabitants of Buguggiate, Italy are apparently learning the hard way.

The town, tucked into the north-eastern tip of Lombardy, has started installing decorated roundabouts to replace the costlier and, on the face of it, more dangerous stopping junctions. Alas, one such traffic island, adorned with life-size cut-outs of cyclists and a model aeroplane, has proven so intriguing to passing motorists as to create a new hazard in itself. The cyclists each represent members of the Northern League, a locally influential political party, and the challenge to identify each one has apparently been distracting motorists from their more immediate task.

"Art concerns us all," said Lena Baldi, a citizen who claims she narrowly avoided an accident at the roundabout, writing to the local news site Varese News. "But I would not like that absorption with these artworks to include the involvement of a tow truck and doctors at the emergency room." There are, of course, fine specimens of roadside statuary throughout the globe which have never done anyone harm; Al Ain's handsome roundabouts, for example, or the coffee pots and cannon that line Airport Road in Abu Dhabi. Still, it seems there may be a tension between the typical aims of a work of art on the one hand, and, on the other, what one could wish to have flashing through one's field of vision as one navigates a busy intersection. Ms Baldi's reference to "absorption" seems apt here, for the capacity to inspire that state is, in the opinion of the American critic Michael Fried, precisely the criterion by which truly valuable art may be identified.

In his book Art and Objecthood, Fried described with approval the way French painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries could bring viewers "to a halt in front of the painting... holding them there in a virtual trance of imaginative involvement". For Fried, that kind of rapt aesthetic experience lets the beholder forget herself and experience a wholeness of being which ordinary life denies. To which the reply must be: that's all very well if you're in the Louvre. It isn't so great if you're trying to steer a ton or so of high-speed metal with a core of explosive petrochemicals.

This all goes to raise the question: what should roadside art look like? What, for instance, do we think of a recent Portuguese installation by DraftFCB Lisbon in which the stripes of a zebra crossing were replaced by lists of the names of pedestrians who were killed in car accidents? It is, presumably, a sobering thing to see. Yet if it encourages walkers to linger in the middle of the road with downcast eyes, it must be reckoned a bit of a failure, at least from a pragmatic point of view. Art has reasons of its own, of course.

Yet perhaps another idea pertaining to late classical aesthetics would be useful here. The great English gardener Capability Brown used to design his landscapes according a kind of "grammar" so that different ornamental features - serpentine lakes, little copses and so on - corresponded to different marks of punctuation. "Now there," he once told the philanthropist Hannah More as he worked on Hampton Court, "I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject." It strikes me that this analogy with punctuation might also be useful for roadside art. The idea is to slow the traveller and bestow meaning and rhythm on his journey. It isn't to bring him to a halt.

This said, road safety statistics seem to respond to some surprising interventions. The risk theorist John Adams once proposed that fatalities could be reduced if "all motor vehicles were to be fitted with long, sharp spikes emerging from the centres of their steering wheels". The idea was that people drive more carefully if they judge themselves to be one prang away from a harpooning. With that in mind, perhaps roadside art should be made as distracting as possible. An effigy of the "Hello Boys"-era Eva Herzigova with rotating hypno eyes ought to do the trick.