By removing artwork from the traditional white cube of galleries and museums, public art democratizes access to artist expression and historical discourse, encourages public engagement in the spaces occupied by the artwork, and regenerates these public spaces for by its inhabitants. Maintaining public art to preserve the artists original vision/intention, is imperative to ensure this ongoing interaction between the artwork, the public space, and the public.
Introduction to the Artwork
Erected in 1989, Thom Puckey's The Lens Trees have been a much-adored staple of the University Quarter visual landscape for decades. The playful and interactive fresnel lenses, which – the artist characterizes - are the focal point of the artwork, have become yellowed and opaque over time and the patinated bronze “trunks” have lost their original luster. Restoring these vital aesthetic and functional aspects of the artwork, in turn, restore the public engagement with the artwork, and the space it engenders for the community in the University Quarter.
Defined by Surroundings
The Lens Trees is located in the University Quarter at an intersection of bike and pedestrian traffic. It was this location that inspired Puckey to create a sculpture that interacts with its surroundings by way of including it in these traffic routes. Cyclists are confronted with ist impressive stature as they cycle down Vendelstraat and pedestrians can stroll underneath its sprawling branches while going about their daily lives. At the time of its commission, lenses were a prominent component in Puckey`s gallery work and naturally made their way into the sculpture. The Fresnel lenses additionally reference Spinoza's lens-grinding workshop in the area and allude to telescopes absorbing the surroundings and playfully turning them on their head.
To align more with the dynamic character of the location, Puckey decided to use figurative tree-like forms as means to hold the lenses in place, which was inspired by artworks with dancing figures such as the work Les Trois Danseuses (1925) by Picasso. This all intimates a linear process with a clear final idea, but it is quite the opposite. Throughout the years, the sculpture, through interacting with its surroundings, has gained its own meaning. The lenses adapt to changing seasons and time of day: they reflect the streetlights at night, turning into sparkly stars. During neighborhood parties, the tree branches – often covered in party streamers – become part of the decoration. The Lens treesis truly a public entity, as it functions and interacts with its surroundings without artistic pretense.
Design Thinking Method
Placemaking concerns the (re)designing of public spaces where the ideas and accounts of varied users and stakeholders inform the process of creating a public space that actively interacts with its environment. Used within placemaking to engender the aforementioned process, Design Thinking methodology involves repeated reflection and the continual development of ideas categorized by the phases EMPATHIZE, DEFINE, IDEATE, PROTOTYPE, and TEST. For the course Placemaking for Conservation, aimed at finding ways to include art objects in the process of placemaking, we have implemented this method to generate ideas and prototypes for our case study The Lens Trees (1989), a public sculpture by Thom Puckey located in the University Quarter of University of Amsterdam.
The main concern surrounding the sculpture is the need for an increase in interaction between the sculpture and its surroundings, both human and non-human. The interactive function of the sculpture hinges on the lenses, which require conservation treatment. Following the Design Thinking phase Empathize, we identified the direct user-groups as the University Quarter residents and the UvA student body, with (sub)target groups including the University Quarter residents, UvA student body, the conservation community, the Municipality of Amsterdam, and the artist.
The user groups show that there is a need for the placemaking assignment to include the interaction between the sculpture and its various surrounding user-groups, which lead to the development of the following research question for the Define phase:
How could the need for conservation be placed on the agenda of the municipality and integrated into the renovation of the University Quarter?
In the Ideate phase, we focused on raising public awareness for the restoration of The Lens Trees. We distributed an online survey to residents of the University Quarter to gauge their general feelings toward the artwork and the need for its restoration. As part of our brainstorming process in the ideate phase, we also conceived of potential ways to encourage public engagement with the artwork, such as in-person talks and QR-code-activated online resources about the artwork and the conservation/restoration process.
In the prototype phase, we developed hashtags for use on social media to publicly ramp up support for the restoration of the artwork in a manner that is noticeable to the Municipality of Amsterdam.
We encouraged residents and students via the distributed online survey to post images of the artwork on social media with the hashtags: #lenstrees, #preservepublicart, and #gemeenteamsterdam.
Prototype Phase Continued...
We additionally printed out and posted images near The Lens Tress comparing the original condition of the artwork with the current state of the artwork to invoke an emotional response from passers-by. A QR code links to a short survey assessing the public response to the potential conservation treatment of The Lens Trees.
In the test phase, we had direct discussions with both the Municipality of Amsterdam and Kunstwacht, which is the maintenance company for public artworks in Amsterdam, about placing The Lens Trees on the agenda in time for the unveiling of the new library in the University Quarter in 2025. Kunstwacht regularly cleans The Lens Trees, but 2010 was the last time a more comprehensive maintenance procedure was conducted. The municipality is instructing Kunstwach to reach out to Thom Puckey to address the details of the conservation treatment. A cost evaluation for the conservation treatment, including replacing the yellowed lens coverings, must also be conducted to ensure the proposed treatment falls within budget before moving forward.