Ruth Barker

On Seeking the Temporary in Contemporary Public Art





Of a short story, I once heard someone say that 'its brevity doesn’t matter because its resonance remains.' Thinking about public art, I find I disagree: not with the statement’s sentiment, but with its specificity. Because actually I think that brevity matters very much indeed. Sometimes, after all, it’s the brief nature of a work – the sense of the fleeting, the transient, the ephemeral - that lends its resonance.

Why? How might it be that significance is leant rather than lost by temporary-ness? I thought about it, sitting on the train between London and Glasgow, watching the landscape flash past the dull toughened glass of the window. I found a blue biro in my black bag, and on the back of a pink paper bag I wrote, slowly, as each point occurred to me in turn:


1)    In art, resonance sometimes becomes permanence in memory (we may see something once, and remember it forever).

2)    = Ephemerality as a kind of individual (but non-physical) permanence. The unexpected gift of the original moment of encounter might be dulled if repeated.

3)    Also, public artwork is generally produced for a specific context. This context is not only physical but also social, emotional, economic, ergonomic, &c. In time, these contexts may shift. As they shift, a permanent public artwork may lose its moorings. Temporary work exists in the moment, and departs with it.

4)    We are creatures of habit. If we see something (anything) too many times, we may find that it becomes invisible to us. Temporary work arrives and leaves again, asking us (as we pass that way to work) to notice first its presence, and then its absence.

5)    A change is as good as a rest.

6)    Familiarity breeds contempt.


Chewing my pen, I turned the paper bag over, still thinking, and not quite satisfied. On the side where the company’s logo was printed in light grey, I wrote quickly with my blue pen:

-       But don’t we have confidence in our ability to make valuable, significant things?

-       Isn’t there a value to having artists shape our civic spaces?

-       Don’t we want to leave a legacy for the future?

-       Don’t we have a responsibility to give value for money? How can we justify spending thousands on something that only lasts a year, a season, a month, a day, an hour?

-       You talk about temporary works as if they’re a gift – appearing and disappearing, to remain in our memories like gold leaf glimpsed on a dirty wall (I mean, like something precious, unexpected, and gone the next time we look). But aren’t you actually taking something away when a temporary work disappears or fades away? You talk about giving, but I feel like I’ve lost something important.

-       Out of sight, out of mind.

 I sat for a long time looking out at the moving world. Eventually I tore the bag down both long edges and opened it up, flattening it on the table. Now the two lists I’d made were both on the same side, lying face down on the plastic wood. The bag’s inside was white, and slightly waxy. It lay like a blank sheet, waiting to be drawn on. I tapped the pen on the paper, thinking. The round nib made little blue dots on the white. Milton Keynes passed, then Northampton, Rugby, and Stafford. When we reached Manchester Piccadilly, in the very centre of the bag and at right angles to the central crease, I wrote something bold in big blue capitals. Then I put the lid on my pen and leaned back in my seat, watching the window, feeling that I had written a conclusion.

But at Carlisle I read the paper again. I was as dissatisfied as I thought I would be. With decision, I screwed the bag up and turned it into rubbish. So long as we’re still wondering, I thought, we’re doing all we can.