How the worm turns

It seems there is nothing quite like the issue of public art to stimulate debate.

Whether it be form, function, meaning, materials, longevity, cost, location, the work's title, or the artist's ''qualifications'', the works inevitably prompt a great outpouring of comments from the public.

There was a public uproar about the installation of Harbour Mouth Molars in Portsmouth Dr in 2010.

The six large predominantly Oamaru stone wisdom teeth by artist Regan Gentry, originally from Hawkes Bay and an Otago Polytechnic fine arts graduate, were funded through the Dunedin City Council's art in public places budget.

Reaction included everything from people thinking it was an April Fools' Day joke, to comments about the name and location as it wasn't strictly at the harbour mouth, to the fact it was designed to age and discolour and would be ugly when it did, to its $45,000 ratepayer-funded price tag.

Palmerston North video artist Rachel Rakena's Haka Peepshow, not strictly an public art piece but a temporary 2011 Rugby World Cup installation, raised similar ire and council infighting, with outrage over the phallic shape and cost - $130,000 - in particular.

The council's originally-mooted $100,000 was reduced to $50,000 when Ngai Tahu agreed to increase its contribution from $30,000 to $80,000.

When it comes to publicly-funded art in the outdoor public arena, it is understandable some ratepayers want to have their say.

After all, they have to see it and they have to pay for it. One of the most-debated issues is often the cost, with many projects being deemed expensive.

Proponents argue, given the amount of time, consideration and skill that goes into their creation, and compared with many other budgeted areas, or other jurisdictions in the country, the sums paid for public art here are actually relatively small.

But critics question whether the unquantifiable benefits of art are worth spending on when there are projects with more tangible beneficial outcomes, and more areas of active ''need''.

In a city rich with educational institutions, heritage, and a strong artistic legacy, such projects have been deemed worthy of funding by the council for many years, and frequently indicated as important by the public in the likes of residents opinion surveys.

There is no doubt striking the right balance is no easy task, particularly given art, by its very nature, is subjective, and cannot necessarily ''please'' everyone.

Given that the response to art works is the huge unknown - it is all the more important the areas that can be calculated are done so - and done so clearly: the artist, the artist's brief, the art work's purpose, visual expectations including height and size, suitability for its location, and of course, cost.

And, sadly, it is in these fundamental areas in which the latest controversial public art proposal appears to have fallen down.

The commissioning of an art work by the DCC to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Botanic Garden should have been cause for celebration, excitement, anticipation.

Instead, Christchurch artist Julia Morison's $100,000 sculpture of a worm, titled Ouroboros, defined by Collins dictionary as ''an ancient, mythical serpent used to symbolise perpetuity'', has created a viper's nest.

Remarkably little has been said about the worm itself.

The criticism has been about the process behind its selection, with accusations the council rushed the process, and midway changed the goalposts regarding the preference of a Dunedin or outside artist, and the $60,000 budget for the work, which will be funded from a bequest.

Sculptors are upset and not ruling out legal action over the decision, but the council is sticking to its guns and defending its process.

Mayor Dave Cull said last week: ''It appears to me you have public art and there is a bit of a controversy, or you don't have public art at all.''

While most artists expect debate over the nature of their work, this situation has overshadowed any artistic conversation on the work itself - and what should have been the crowning glory on a significant milestone for the city.


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