My first encounter with Sri Lanka and its art world took place in July 2014 at the invitation of the British Council in Colombo. The invitation rolled together most of my passions - public art, visiting a country new to me, heading a well-conceived initiative, meeting new artists and responding to an agenda firmly rooted in the place where the concept was being generated. My brief consisted of leading a symposium and a designing a four day workshop involving around 40 artists. During the week I also enjoyed meeting potential supporters, including some corporate sponsors, and contributed to a final presentation sharing the outcomes of the workshops with many key stakeholders at the British Council.

Public art, anywhere in the world, is a mirror of society and its political, economic, social and environmental conditions. Sri Lanka is at a crucial point in forming its cultural identity, with many artists responding to socio-political issues and environmental concerns. There are also other artists who are continuing to work in more traditional genres. Social Canvas was an inclusive forum drawing artists together from diverse backgrounds and inviting them to respond to the changing times. Right from the beginning when we had planning meetings to design the symposium held on 18 July, I was really impressed with the quality of ideas and indeed the critique of content; my first impressions of the Sri Lankan art world is therefore a positive one – it seems that practitioners are extremely well-informed and aware of the international context in which they are operating.

During the workshops I reminded participants to bear in mind the five guiding principles for commissioning public art;

-       Quality of artistic concept: core and uniqueness of work; does it fulfill its own criteria?

-       Engagement with the public: who is the work for? Is the public literally key in creating or completing or interacting with the work?

-       Contexts: does the artwork respond to the social, demographic, environmental and architectural contexts? Is it integrated into its setting?

-       Collaborative scope: can the artist achieve more than the ‘sum of the parts’ through collaboration with an architect, engineer, choreographer, ecologist?; can they achieve unprecedented scale; new materials/techniques?

-       Longevity/meaning: is the artwork conceived as permanent, temporary or ephemeral?

And, one might add to the above, the need for adequate budgets, contracts that cover responsibilities of the commissioner and the artist, ownership and maintenance, and de-commissioning procedure in the case of temporary artworks.

In my keynote presentation at the symposium I covered a lot of ground and gave a number of examples of public art, permanent and temporary. Some of these projects were curated by my office, Modus Operandi; I tried to select examples from the UK and abroad to inspire the Sri Lankan audiences. To mention only a few today is invidious but nevertheless, here they are; one artist-designed permanent place; one temporary light serial work; and one artist-led socially-engaged work comprising a series of temporary installations:

The Shadow of a Tree by Shelagh Wakely 2002

Marunouchi Art Project, Tokyo

Commissioner: Mitsubishi Estate Co. Ltd.

Curator: Modus Operandi

Why is it successful? It creates a new place within a place; the artwork grows from the trees (glass wall work) and the rain (squares in the ground) in Tokyo. It’s integrated into the architecture of the building, and instantly formed a new place to meet and hang out.

Underglow by Susan Collins 2006

Light Up Queen Street, London

Commissioner: City of London

Curator: Modus Operandi

Why is it successful? As a temporary installation over a four-month period, the artwork was one of four light artworks commissioned with the aim to regenerate Queen Street: the art programme helped achieve this. Underglow lit all the drains along the street, the LEDs subtly changing colour. It became a subject of conversation and a new meeting place.

Waste Land by Vik Muniz, 2010 and ongoing

Artist’s initiative, Rio de Janeiro

A series of installations, photographs and a film documenting the collaborations between the artist and local people, creating artworks based on old master paintings, out of rubbish.

Why is it successful? It’s an artist-led project that engages large numbers of the public in the process of creating extraordinary installations; raises awareness of ecology and recycling, re-imagining lives, art history, beauty, documentation/dissemination of images etc.

A huge amount was achieved in a week in Colombo – despite the heat and humidity the workshop itself was very successful - four teams of artists developed site-specific proposals. These speculative projects are only illustrations of what could be achieved through Social Canvas; on the first day we visited the various sites and chose four very different locations: a large park, a beach in the Mount Lavinia area, Galle Face - the famous seafront in Colombo, as well as a neglected island in the middle of an ornamental lake  right in the centre of the capital city. The four teams showed real commitment working under the expert guidance of team leaders who were all experienced artists/curators: Lalith Manage, Menika van der Poorten, Poornima Jayasinghe and Radhika Hettiarachchi.

My week also included a visit to the preview of Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s wonderful exhibition at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery; and meetings with the Founder-Director, Annoushka Hempel, and Neil Butler, Co-Director of the Colombo Art Biennale. Finally, as an honorary architect, I was delighted to be able to visit Lunuganga, the former home and amazingly beautiful landscape, designed by Sir Geoffrey Bawa which is a couple of hours drive outside Colombo.

The energy of all those involved bodes well for the future of Social Canvas: public art isn’t a ‘quick win’ anywhere in the world, yet there are thousands of great precedents to learn from and to understand that the process itself is as creative and important, as the end result.

I’d like to thank all at the British Council and particularly Katrina Schwarz, Shreela Ghosh, Natalie Soysa, Harriet Gardner and Eranda Ginige for their generosity and support.

© Vivien Lovell, Modus Operandi