James Balmond & Azara Jaleel

An onlooker pauses to absorb a new reality. The once familiar separation of sky and earth is now tenuous as the horizon arches under a seemingly magnetic spell. Rubber skyscrapers warp and bend while the turgid urban fabric melts into a mystery. Confronted with this scene, the mind experiences a sense of bewilderment stimulated by a distortion of spatial context and physical experience. Overwhelmed with new emotions and sensations, the onlooker thinks differently. 

We are not describing an illusory dreamscape, rather we are in the AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois. This is the home of Cloud Gate – the iconic artist Anish Kapoor’s famed 110-ton elliptical public sculpture, composed of a series of seamless and highly polished stainless steel plates forming a reflective skin. This mirrored surface provokes infinite warped reflections of the surrounding environment. With over 9.3 million visitors each year, a booming multi-million dollar micro economy and renewed investment back into the area, the once dormant and docile ‘Loop Community’ locality is thriving as a result of the commissioned public art.


From Gormley’s Angel of the North in the UK and Koons’ Puppy in Bilbao, to Selarón’s Escaderia in Rio de Janeiro, public art is seen as a cultural imperative in the West. However in South East Asia and Sri Lanka specifically, the picture is a little different. Public art, within the contemporary context, is very much in its infancy. However, there are new shoots germinating from fertile soil. The billion dollars plus Port City development project, a self-sustaining eco-system of economy and industry, will be home to two public art commissions integrated into its master plan. Significantly, the inclusion of public art on site speaks volumes about the former’s perceived value and represents a new hybridity between urban and artistic concerns. 

The Port City Student Design Competition in partnership with ARTRA; themed as “Envision the Future”, was an open pitch to the next generation of Sri Lankan artists and designers. The brief was to envision Sri Lanka’s future. The goal was to highlight new creative talent under the global spotlight. Finally the strategic aim of the competition was to illustrate the importance of design in the planning and development of Port City Colombo, using fresh creative minds as the conduits. What emerged were the cultural connotations of the island and its communities abstractly fashioned and invented in sculptures and constructions, each with the intention to promote the identity of a nation – the inherent purpose of public art. ARTRA’s partnership with the competition influenced and facilitated the ideology of the symbolization of cultural nuances accentuated and highlighted to create a space that embraces the characteristics of a burgeoning island, yet assuring individuality. 

The winning piece ‘Lodiya’ by a group of emerging artists and designers presented a coil-like structure, representative of Sri Lankan King Vijaya’s landing on copper soil and the lifestyle of the era, metaphorically linking the past, present and future while embodying a comprehensive philosophy of the changing and evolving periods throughout history, into a developed future. Such is the power of public art as it attempts to establish the essence of a space in a storyline of the artist’s acquiescence of which the community become spectators. The fluid formation and creative intricacies that build the presence of personality is indicative of not only a country’s past, but it enhances the probability of recurring and metamorphosing demonstrations – a conception that will, in its trajectory, invite change and discard rigidity.

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27th April, 2021 Applied Art | Architecture