Monday, November 10, 2008

A New Airport Art Aesthetic

All over the world, a percentage (usually between one and two percent) of the total airport construction budget is set aside specifically to fund public art programs. Given the cost of building a modestly sized airport can approach a billion dollars, airport art acquisition budgets rival those of many museums, and are quickly becoming a major exhibition space for art.

The potential audience is equally massive. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art accommodated about four million visitors. In that same year, 70 million people passed through O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

Of course, there is a difference between an art museum and an airport — people in airports are rushed. A museum's sole purpose is to facilitate a leisurely stroll from art piece to art piece. Visitors don't have time to spend admiring artwork on the way to their destination. In other words, people don't go to airports to admire the art. If it's not an integral part of the airport, it's nothing more than a distraction for stressed and harried passengers.

However, given an audience and the money invested, it seems only natural that we would want to populate our airports with the best our culture has to offer. But increasingly, artwork seems to be perceived by airport planners as a panacea to the stress and anxiety passengers face when traveling. It is a solution similar to the phenomenon Tom Wolfe once called "the turd in the plaza," or plop art. Plop art originally referred to international modernist skyscraper plazas in the middle of which a sculpture, usually large, metal and alien, was 'plopped.' When the idea was first implemented it was seen as a remedy to the dehumanizing aspects of modernist skyscrapers, those geometric glass boxes designed to house people as efficiently as possible. As anyone who has visited downtown Manhattan or Chicago and seen this kind of work in person knows, it fails to remedy anything. Today an equivalent practice can be found in airports.

Christopher Janney, a site-specific architectural artist, said, "My work, especially when it's in public-transportation areas, is really about creating an oasis. It's about being in juxtaposition to the din." By inference, the implication is that the public transportation areas as they are originally designed are public deserts, forbidding, sterile and lifeless. Public transportation areas should be specifically designed to be as stress free as possible, encouraging social interaction and Vitruvian delight, with playful installation artists like Janney brought in from the the initial planning phase. Instead, artists like Janney are increasingly expected to function like the symptomatic-prescriptive doctors of today's medical practice, trying to cure instead of prevent.

The questions airport planners should be asking are, Why do we need an oasis in a space we designed? Why aren't our airports humanistic? Is airport art nothing more than a drug to alleviate symptoms of the disease of poor design that needlessly stresses passengers, or can airports learn to build in the overlapped spaces between art and design? Is there an airport art aesthetic?

When art is commissioned specifically for an airport often it is the artists themselves who are at fault for creating work that is either irrelevant to the audience or impractical in the situation. A visitor to Schipol Airport in Amsterdam walks into a vortex of changing speeds and spaces, a blur of metal, glass, people, concrete, chairs, food, smells, languages, signs and lights blend together in a sensual cacophony. In the midst of all this, untitled, by Jenny Holzer, is a 927 x 27 cm vertical column covered with a red LED sign reads a never ending stream of unique 'truisms,' such as, "'The desire to reproduce is a death wish.' 'It is the habitual mistakes that make fate.'" John Thackra put it best, "Phenomenologically, it is inert. It is powerless to communicate amidst the silent roar of people, movement, and information that pervades the airport."

In O'Hare's award-winning airport terminal 'L' (which has its own set of problems) Michael Hayden's The Sky's the Limit, a light sculpture comprised of ceiling mounted neon lights, hovers overhead. The lights, their linear forms alternately resembling organic jellyfish tentacles and the vehicles in Tron, light up in complex patterns set to a custom composed music piece by William Kraft. One look at a video of this piece and one can see how inconsequential it is to passengers walking beneath it. The lights become mere decoration, ignored by the public. Not only do the lights fail to make any discernible impact on visitors, but they fail to make any statement about the airport or Chicago itself. The piece is 'inert.'

In the summer of 1995, for an article on Denver International Airport, New Art Examiner wrote:

New Mexico artist Luis Jimenez's initial proposal was for a multiple-piece sculptural installation of an Indian buffalo stampede and slaughter that was to be placed in the terminal, where passengers would be "herded" amongst the buffalo. The proposal was nixed as too politicized, however, and Jimenez was eventually awarded $300,000 to fashion his fiberglass bronco—the 30-foot Rearing Mustang—for the airport's front lawn. It was to have flashing red eyes gazing skyward, but Federal Aviation Administration officials warned that the lighted eyes might confuse pilots approaching the runways. Now the mustang won't rear up for another two years, and when it does, the horse's eyes will be pointed downward.

Obviously there must be a balance between the space art requires to communicate and the impediment of airport functions. Part of the problem is that airports are too complex — there is less and less space for the artist to be able to work in isolation. There must be a dialogue, from conception, between the artist, architects and community involved in the airport's design.

Ironically, it is that kind of integration between art and design that draws a great deal of criticism. The Pittsburgh Airport has been repeatedly criticized for its art being too well integrated into the airport. Pieces like Alan Saret's Home and Away, comprised of tile pathways in the airside terminal atrium, reinforce the "X-shaped terminal and the atrium's 60-foot ceilings." But more importantly, Saret says Home and Away "clarifies and brightens the path for inbound and outbound travelers and at the same time affords a sense of place." However, the artwork is so symbiotic with the design that it goes unnoticed as 'art,' to the point that visitors fail to notice it as such.

The difference, though, between Hayden's work and work like Saret's at Pittsburgh is that Pittsburgh's art communicates something to those who listen, but doesn't impose itself. We go to museums and think nothing of seeing art, for a museum's function is to do just that, house art. Likewise, we should not be surprised by the art we see in an airport, in the sense that it should appear to be integrated into the structure and system. When the Pittsburgh art committee, deluged in complaints that local artists were not getting a fair share of the limelight, gave in and installed Silver Grid Wall, by Peter Calaboyias, the effect was artwork "neither integrated with the architecture nor given the prominence of the original five works." Art installed for art's sake has no place in airports.

That's not to say airport art is a lost cause. The last 20 years abound with success stories of the integration of art and design in airports.

Art can serve practical, in addition to aesthetic, functions. Coda, by Dennis Adams, is a 450 cm checkered cube in Schiphol International Airport's main plaza. Besides understated ties to airports through its use of color and grid, the piece serves as a big, bright meeting point — one can imagine the cellphone conversations: "Meet me at the 3-D chessboard at 4." At Orlando International Airport, Todd Warner sculpted a menagerie of animals native to Florida to help drivers remember which floor they parked on. Functional art has great potential for growth. Why shouldn't wayfinding be enjoyable, even fun?

Other times art picks up where architecture left off and successfully integrates the interior with the exterior. In Nashville, Dale Eldred's Airport Sun Project, a "concoction of mirrors and diffraction panels uses reflected light to splash a continuously changing medley of colors on surfaces at the terminal entrance and near ticketing counters." It might be considered distraction, but at least the idea behind the work — our relationship with the sun — is vaguely accessible to the harried passenger. The piece asks nothing of the viewer and allows them to continue on their way because movement is actually required to appreciate its shifting light qualities and see the illustration in its entirety. Robert Morris's Steam Gardens and Framed Vistas, for Pittsburgh, acts as a segue between the parking garage and airport entrance. Steam rises off smooth river stones enclosed in five 140'x48' courtyards, giving the airport the ambiguous and mysterious aura of overgrown Asian jungle ruins. By adding drama to the otherwise routine act of entering and exiting, Morris elevates the airport to monumental status.

Airports have been criticized for being alienating and disconnected from the community that supports them. Data Nature, by Ben Hooker and Shona Kitschen, disguises an introduction to the community in the form of a ticket. Those who dare to push the button at the behest of one of two ticket kiosks get their picture surreptitiously taken and a faux boarding ticket is printed out, complete with a picture of the person, random weather and flight data and obscure facts and stories about the airport. In this way, connections between the invisible airport operations, local community and the data that make it work smoothly are all unobtrusively brought together.

Electroland, a company whose self-described mission involves "creating new relationships between people and public space and shifting the boundaries of private experience in the public sphere," designed Connection, an installation consisting of dinner plate sized lights mounted into the ceiling of a walkway at Indianapolis Airport. The lit dots, constantly changing in color and intensity, become life forms in their own right, playfully following individuals and groups of people, chasing each other, drawing connections between passengers, or synchronizing together for brief sound clips. A similar proposal for Hollywood Airport in Florida involves LED lights installed in the floor. These kinds of interactive installations give airports a lifelike presence, a crude but admirable approximation of the dynamics of natural environments.

If, as current trends suggest, airports are becoming cities, why not take the opportunity to define at least part of the shape these new environments should take? When technological sophistication reaches a point that our built environments are as complex and information-strewn as the natural world, a kind of natural airport order should refine the design. I propose a new airport art aesthetic, to be adopted by artists and architects alike, one that not just acknowledges, but thrives off of the constraints of airport functions and uses them as the raw material for inspiration. Airport art should not be limited to isolated objects without context or meaning, but encompass whole environments. In talking about his experience at Pittsburgh International Airport, Robert Morris described his work as "'site-generated,' rather than 'site-specific.'" The interplay between form and function or site-generated and site-specific is debatable, but there is no question that airport art not directly addressing the issue is ugly from conception.


Artfuldodger. Post to everything Web forum, August 2, 2000. (accessed November 10, 2008).

Carmichael, Suzanne. "Stuck at the Airport? Then Look at the Art." The New York Times, December 15, 1991. (accessed November 10, 2008).

Electroland. "Interactive Passage." Electroland. (accessed November 10, 2008).

Electroland. "Interactive Walkways." Electroland. (accessed November 10, 2008).

Fogt, Stephen. Post to Artifice Great Buildings Discussion Web forum, November 6, 1999. (accessed November 8, 2008).

Hall, Peter. "Hear Color, See Sound." Metropolis Magazine, September 19, 2007. (accessed November 3, 2008).
Hensler, Kate. "Pittsburgh International Airport." Sculpture, July-August 1991.

Huebner, Jeff. "holding pattern." The New Art Examiner, Summer 1995.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Visitor Information." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (accessed November 9, 2008).

Schiphol. "untitled, 1995 (Holzer) - Schiphol." Schiphol.,1995Holzer/untitled,1995Holzer.htm (accessed November 10, 2008).

Thackara, John. "Lost in Space — A Traveller's Tale." In Airport - The most important new buildings of the twentieth-century, 58-69. Great Britain: The Photographers' Gallery, 1997.

World Airport Guides. "Chicago O'Hare International Airport - ORD Airport Guide." World Airport Guides. (accessed November 9, 2008).

No comments: