03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Material of Public Art


"I just want to say one word.... Plastics.... There's a great future in plastics"

Summer was when the usual open and green spaces in cities rotate with installations by artists to please and provoke residents and visitors alike. The world of public art has fulfilled Mr. Maguire's prophesy to Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock from The Graduate. Though just a quirky moment in the iconic Mike Nichols film, the same properties of plastic from over forty years ago is what has allowed it to blossom -some would say proliferate - as an art material in recent years. That is, of course, its practicality. It can be durable, light, easy to transport and install, and it doesn't erode or oxidize. It needs no maintenance and you don't have to feed it. It won't die because it has never been alive.

This practicality is neither a positive or negative aspect, not yet. There have been many trendy materials that have come and gone, both fragile and durable, that have had implicit meanings or menaces as sculptural starting points. The postwar era has had flings with wax, latex, and lead, along with all the extra baggage these materials carry. It has also had various love affairs with the more gravitas-laden substances - bronze, aluminum, stainless and core-ten steel, all of which provided permanence, until - because of the atmosphere - they didn't. And the elder statesmen materials such as marble and limestone never enjoyed the acid showers provided by late twentieth century progress.

Plastics have none of these liabilities. However, every material has meaning and plastic is no exception. Plastics are conceptually bound to irony but are also nourished and protected by it. Irony, of course, gives many an art-narrative an interesting edge, and conversely - and even more effectively - protects that narrative from the burden of communicable meaning. This makes plastics invincible on all fronts. No physical liability, no conceptual liability--it's a win-win.

However, there are current concerns about environmental sustainability in many fields and practices including those of the cultural world. Architecture and design communities have already made the mission of greenness paramount to their disciplines. The question now would remain: should the art world be held up to the same practical standards as architects, engineers, designers and fabricators?

One answer may be: It never has before, why should it now, especially when much of what allows art to be art is the willful avoidance of rules, at least with regard to all other worldly practices? It would certainly be a form of material censorship to even suggest that a public sculptor ought to limit his or her vision in any way. But, one could also argue, that the material is not entirely what makes a process green.

Greenness, of course, is not necessarily found in the organic properties of a material or the end product of an artist. It does not depend on the biodegradability or afterlife of a sculpture. However, the production and execution is often a larger factor in determining a scuplture's green credentials, and it is not always as obvious as it appears. For example, the production of plastics, a synthetic, may be greener than the overall impact from fashioning art out of wood, what would seem to be the most organic material. The latter will cause environmental degradation from the depletion of trees and the lamination process. Then shipping, mailing, painting, and finishing all further tax the environment in their own special ways.

Mild steel rusts and eventually biodegrades, as did cor-ten steel, unintentionally, while stainless and aluminum do not. Which are greener? Again, one needs to weigh all environmental factors, production, transportation and life after installation and maintenance in order to assess this question.

One thing we know: plastics are made from petroleum products but we can't blame them for fueling Al Qaeda any more than we could blame large-scale wood sculptors for depleting the rain forests. But eventually the measure of symbolic meaning of a material might matter on some level. While there must be some formulaic way of determining the sustainability and greenness of large sculptural installations, the effect of the material and narrative is almost forgotten.

In the end, the greatest shortcomings of giant plastic toy pieces are not necessarily in the facile material or its reminders. Every material has its own historical burden and meaning, whether it's the metaphoric density of bronze or the levity and infantilization by plastics.

So next summer, as we stroll through the endangered green and public spaces in New York, perhaps we could start noticing the material aspects of public art, what it means and what it can mean in the future, and what considerations could be added to this dialogue in terms of sustainability.