LivingArts: Concrete Poetry

 

The artist Robert Smithson argued that cultural confinement occurs when artists are forced to insert themselves into fraudulent or fabricated categories in order to have their work squeak by cultural gate keepers such as curators, funders, etc. He argued this was detrimental to the moral integrity of artists, and it is possible to extend this criticism to the realm of public art. Many artists feel in order to enter the arena of making “public art” it is necessary to engage in a series of compromises. Therefore, I am amazed when I encounter a work of public art that has run the gauntlet of negotiations with selection committees, consulting engineers, municipal rules and so on, and in spite of these challenges has apparently emerged unfiltered and undiltuted by the process. Locke Street has one such piece titled Concrete Poetry by Simon Frank. This series of phrases cast in bronze and inconspicuously inserted in to the side walk leads the viewer to ask more questions than it answers and expands social engagement within the neighbourhood.

Long before I met Simon, Concrete Poetry was one of the first public artworks I encountered in Hamilton. Every time I stumble across these bronze words inserted into the sidewalk they present me with a new experience - a new frame for understanding the commercial strip that it grafts itself to. The plaques themselves are small and inconspicuous, but they effectively turn the experience of walking down the street into a performance. Taking them individually or attempting to decipher the entire message, engaging with the piece activates the street and adds value to the environment. I am not sure how this piece came to exist, if the selection process was contentious or if the artist was nudged towards altering his idea in relation to expectations of the selection committee or community stakeholders. In the end it doesn’t matter, because the artist navigated whatever hurdles were put in his way in order to craft a piece that adds value to the community in a meaningful and engaged way.