Utrecht, The Netherlands

View of “Can Altay,” 2011.

View of “Can Altay,” 2011.

Can Altay

Casco Office for Art, Design and Theory

View of “Can Altay,” 2011.

The appearance of public art is often the result of top-down decision-making or capital-driven urban regeneration. In “COHAB: An Assembly of Spare Parts,” Can Altay reviewed the genre, examining its reception at street level by the people who live with it and, in turn, addressing what he evocatively called the “agency” of artworks that persist in our environment.

As his object of study, Altay took Utrecht, a city famous (or notorious) in Holland for its more than four hundred public artworks. His exhibition was structured around “assembly points”—wooden units echoing the architecture of postwar social housing—which were surrounded by charts that mapped the bursts of public art in Utrecht in each decade since the 1920s (Territorial Enquiry; all works 2011), faux-bureaucratic forms inviting the audience to share their thoughts on art in urban spaces (Public Form), and maquettes showing alternative uses for existing public sculpture (Balancing Act). Among the other elements in the show, Excerpts are photographs of small, anonymous interventions in the urban space—a sticker on the eye of a statue, a plastic doll tied to a tree—hanging, unframed and only partly visible, on horizontal poles. On the COHAB Cases Study Table, the visitor could browse files on particular public artworks, including Barry Flanagan’s Thinker on a Rock, 1997, and Cornelius Rogge’s Tent Projects, 1975. The former, on a busy downtown square, is a bronze sculpture of a pensive hare posing as Rodin’s Thinker; the latter, a colossal iron tower in the shape of a tent, sited in a social-housing project on the city’s periphery. Each is a part of the city’s everyday environment, but the files show that they also exemplify the controversy that may ensue when such works are received by locals not as a token of a budding civitas but instead as “plop art” or even an invasive misreading of the place where they live. There was also room in the exhibition for comparative studies. One of these was a file on the fate of two monuments in Altay’s native Turkey, while another addressed the question of governmental surveillance by way of RQ-170, the drone stealth plane used by the US to spy on Osama bin Laden. “COHAB” also included a series of public discussions and a faux-bureaucratic survey of opinions and anecdotes from the local neighborhood. By such means, the exhibition performed its own ethics.

Rather than taking a site-specific approach, “COHAB” dealt with the repercussions of public art in the urban fabric and in the minds and bodies of people. Accordingly, Altay’s constructivism took improvised and de-aestheticized forms from what was at hand, as if materializing the fragility of social imaginaries. Yet if his sociology was brittle and stark, it was not unimaginative: It derived from the dream—or the necessary fiction—of an inclusive public sphere that is perhaps inherently aesthetic because it is produced by citizens who give frame and form to the visible appearance of the cohabitation of different social groups.

Inevitably, “COHAB” resonated in the current context of drastic cutbacks in art and culture recently announced by the Dutch government. In its critique of the public artwork and its exposure of the entanglement of aesthetic and political processes, Altay’s project testified to how an evisceration of cultural institutions can only inhibit the democratic debate that takes place in and through art.

Lars Bang Larsen