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'Ugly' public art stirs controversy
By Wang Jie

WHAT'S beautiful, what's ugly and what makes good public art are debated as the list of China's 10 "ugliest" public sculptures makes waves. Subjects include mating pigs, a bare-breasted starlet and naked women. Wang Jie reports.

An online vote for "China's ugliest public sculpture" should embarrass quite a few sculptors, government officials and real estate developers. In some cases it also shows a big gap between critics and public taste.

The "Top 10 Ugliest Public Sculptures in China in 2012" were announced last month by Sohu.com, organizers of the poll that began last August.

Internet users voted on 59 permanent sculptures created since the 1980s. Five million votes were cast.

Shanghai sculptures were not in the top 10, though six of the 59 "ugly" nominations are in the city. They include the group of three brightly colored women in bikinis in Shanghai Sculpture Park in Songjiang District (206,617 votes), as well as the three pillars on the Bund.

(For a look at the 59 nominated works and their votes, see http://arts.cul.sohu.com/s2012/chouloudiaosu/ <Chinese only>.)

In the national poll, the No. 1 ugliest is "Life," a towering abstract bird's nest in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province. It's a jumble of steel rods topped by three shiny eggs. Critics praised it, but 310,866 Internet users hated it.

Sculptor Bao Pao, who initiated the selection process, told media that some works are indeed ugly, but the top three "ugliest" works are actually quite good, following basic principles of design and space and expressing original thoughts.

Experts noted a significant "aesthetics gap" between the public and art experts and said art education should be improved so that more people can have a more sophisticated view of public art and its value.

Three of the top 10 are widely considered vulgar and tasteless. They include a bare-breasted bust of actress Zhang Ziyi in Chongqing Municipality (No. 6); a naked fat man with genitals exposed, supported by two women in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (No. 7); and two mating figures with smiling pig heads in Zhengzhou, Henan Province (No. 8). In this case, critics concur.

The sculptures and public vote reflect an ongoing discussion on the Internet about the purpose of public sculpture and whether it is art, aesthetics (What is "ugly" or "beautiful?"), and who should decide on public sculpture.

Many works are commissioned and balancing artistic quality with public preference and city selection is difficult.

"If you knew the process of how public sculpture decisions are made, then you would know that negative results are inevitable," says noted local sculptor Chen Yanyin at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute.

Good public sculpture can help make a city's reputation for culture.

District governments have budgets for public sculpture, so they can commission and make decisions, as can the higher-level city construction bureau. Real estate developers also can commission sculpture for their projects and commission artists.

When a road or highway is completed, it's traditional to place two pieces of public sculpture at its starting point; the head of the construction team typically decides what's needed, not an artist.

Whether the sculpture is suitable or not, it will remain standing for decades.

Naturally the aesthetic preferences of government officials and real estate developers carry greater weight than those of artists.

An example is the famous garish "Flower Tree" sculpture in Gubei area in Shanghai's Changning District. It's a 17-meter-tall bouquet of multicolored flowers. Many people detest it, but it wasn't on the list of 59 nominees.

It was designed by a South Korean sculptor, but his drafts were repeatedly changed by government officials. The sculptor was so furious that he finally gave up in disgust. The final result does not bear the name of any artist.
Artists in the public sculpture and art fields have a saying, "You must be patient and listen to whatever comes out of the mouths of officials and then you must be persuasive enough to beat them down."

But some sculptors choose to remain silent.

"This is commission work," says a local sculptor who doesn't want to be identified. "Frankly, that's easy money, especially for sculptors who are not so well-known. If I insist on my art principles, then who will give me another project? The relationship is very critical."

What matters is whether an artist can build a good social network among real estate developers and government officials, "since they are the ones who will finally pay the bill."

Xiang Jing, one of China's top sculptors, calls public commissioned sculpture a matter of "business."

When she graduated from art academy, many of her classmates were engaged in public sculpture to earn a living. "At that time the money from these projects 'fed your mouth'," she says. "One project after another. But in my view they are not making sculptures but rather doing business. Party A wants something, then Party B gives something. So I decided I would never do commission work and maintain my artistic integrity."

"That's the problem with public sculpture in China," says Xiao Gu, vice director of the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute. "The artists don't have the right or power to influence or make a decision. The result is a compromise from several sides. It's a sad thing."

A new statue of Laozi, the founder of Taoism, has generated controversy since it was recently unveiled on the famous Jinji Lake in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Laozi is standing with a bowed head and folded hands, but he is sticking out his tongue. Some have called it "a dangling ghost" and a "Chinese version of Shrek." It has been ridiculed and so have planners who commissioned and approved it.

But sculptor Tian Shixin defends his work, saying it reflects a famous story in which Confucius supposedly asks Laozi about the difference between "hard" and "soft." Laozi shows him his tongue and his one remaining tooth, saying "The tooth is stronger than the tongue, yet the tongue lasts longer."

In the same area containing public sculptures, chair-like statues of near-naked women were removed because they offended public taste.

"The significance of public art doesn't depend on the quality of art, let alone one's career achievements, but on the response from society and ordinary people," says Wang Hongyi, vice chief at Public Art magazine. "The value of a public art piece is finally judged by the environment that is filled with ordinary people."

One example of "successful" popular sculpture was unveiled in a Shenzhen park almost a decade ago. It depicts a group of life-sized people, including migrant workers, students and professionals.

"This project is closer to the popular concept of public art, expressing the living situation of Chinese people at a certain time," says sculptor Xiang Jing.

Xiang says public art should be more closely linked with contemporary art.

But public sculpture is not the same thing as public art, says Jin Jiangbo, assistant dean of public art at the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University. "Public art should embody more art forms, such as light installation, video and other multi-media works. The key element of public art is that it must have some active things to share with the public."

Public sculpture in China "is a bit like getting things done through pull, but art is not something that can be hastily commanded," says Zhang Shangwu, associate professor at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Zhang says works in a city should not be ad hoc, but part of a long-term plan.

"Public sculpture reflects the level of civilization of a city," says Shanghai sculptor Chen Yanyin.

"It is accumulated over time. Otherwise, it's only a pseudo culture."


Top 10 "ugliest" public sculptures

Ranking from the most ugly (No. 1) in descending order:

1 "Life" in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Abstract bird's nest made with towering steel sticks and three steel eggs at the top. 310,886 votes.

2 "Memory of Mountain Town" in Chongqing Municipality. Three pillar-like bronze mountains covered with rustic, stilted houses.

3 "The Soul is out of the Body" in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Several red metallic men or sheets of steel with holes in it.

4 "Nude" in Kunming Grand View Garden, Yunnan. A woman on her back with her legs in the air.

5 "Welcome to Wangjing" in Beijing. Version of the China National Pavilion at Shanghai World Expo 2010, bright red seeming parody of the pavilion.

6 "Zhang Ziyi" in Chongqing. Bust of bare-breasted actress Zhang Ziyi.

7 "Supporting the Old" in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Two women support an enormous naked fat man, his genitals exposed.

8 Mating figures with cartoon-like pig heads, in front of the Zhengzhou Central Plains Fu Tower, in Henan Province.

9 Silver reflecting globe of the earth with raised "golden" shape of China, in front of the library of the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.

10 "Ten Dragons Lying on a Turtle," in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.


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