Museum of Brisbane

Three public art installations that have divided public opinion


The Museum’s William Bustard exhibition has struck a chord with visitors who have come in their droves to soak in the restful Brisbane landscapes prevalent in the artist’s early 20th Century murals and stained-glass windows.

These artworks are an early form of public art and are widely accepted as classic treasures – ones we have a responsibility as a city to preserve and cherish.

But more recent forms of public art haven’t enjoyed the same accord. Public art is often hotly debated, dividing public opinion and attracting widespread media debate. In the lead up to the Museum’s panel debate on the issue, we’ve found three modern examples of public art causing public discord.

1. Art obstructing the flow of traffic

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981


A 120 foot long, 12 feet high steel curtain installed at Federal Plaza, New York City, which was removed under the cover of night less than a decade after it was built. Workers based in surrounding buildings objected to the structure’s enormous bulk and the inconvenience of circumventing it as they crossed the plaza. According to Serra, this is the point,

“The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement.”

Following the outcry, artists, museum curators, and art critics rallied in support of Tilted Arc claiming it as a great work of art. Despite their protests, a jury of five voted 4-1 in favour of removing the sculpture.

2. Would you like art with that?

Damien Hirst, Beautiful Naked Psychedelic Gherkin Exploding Tomato Sauce All Over Your Face, Flame Grilled Painting, 2003


In 2012, artist Damien Hirst donated a spin painting to Burger King Leicester Square franchisee, Django Fung. Valued by Sotheby’s at 150,000 – 400,000 pounds, Hirst’s loan was a big coup for the fast food chain who were attempting to achieve cut-through against rival McDonalds.

The unusual pairing of Hirst and Burger King was quite controversial at the time as Hirst, a well-known artist had only very recently been the subject of a solo retrospective at London’s Tate Modern. Many were shocked that the artist chose to donate a work to the upstairs dining area of a fast food restaurant, a venue not often associated with arts and culture. The artist’s motivation behind the loan still remains much of a mystery.

3. Shining a light on an ugly history

Fiona Foley, Witnessing to Silence, 2004, Brisbane Magistrates Court Bronze, Water Feature, Pavement Stone, Laminated Ash and Stainless Steel

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Months after Foley’s artwork was installed, the Australian newspaper published a provocative piece blazoned with the headline ‘Revealed: Message Hidden in Sculpture’. The article claimed that Foley’s work was not about fire and flood as the public was led to believe, but was really about the murders of Aboriginal people.

In the story, subtitled ‘Rage Revealed in Urban Landscape’, Foley is quoted as saying:

“I knew that the political environment up here is so sensitive that I couldn’t just come out and be up-front about the artwork. I had to couch it in other terminology.’ Foley says ‘All along, I’ve said that the work is related to fire and floods in Queensland.”

Foley, a politically motivated, critically engaged artist, successfully opened the debate within the public arena on the silencing of controversial ideas in artistic practice.

Photo: Stefan Jannides

To hear more on this topic join curators at IAM Projects and Urban Art Projects as well as artists Simon Degroot and Judy Watson at our Public art: Then and now panel, Sunday 30 August 2015.