It’s highly successful by any critical standard, disrupting and transforming a previously banal public space in an unexpected and original way.
So, how did he manage to navigate the potential pitfalls of entering into a commercial relationship with a government organisation? According to Hewson, it can be an “exhausting process refining a design to be elegant, durable and faithful to the original concept”, one that requires the artist to “constantly innovate and fight to ensure concepts are not diluted or butchered during the design and installation process”.
While Hewson is describing his experience of creating a public work – a process necessarily constrained by complicated statutory considerations imposed by faceless bureaucrats – private commissions present their own set of challenges. Potentially, they provide a greater scope for artistic freedom.
And it’s generally obvious at the outset when an artist is going to be pressed into the service of private interests, whether it be a wealthy businessman wanting their ego stroked with a flattering portrait, or a multinational engaging in a cynical band promotion exercise by associating themselves with high culture.
But this isn’t always the case. To cite one example, a well-known Australian painter was asked to create a large-scale installation for the foyer of the corporate headquarters of an international bank. The artist accepted the commission on the basis of guaranteed sovereignty over work within the context of the broad brief to create a visual interpretation of the company’s history.
He found out too late that this was wishful thinking on his part. During a studio visit to view the final product, a senior corporate representative pointed to a purposeful paint drip near the bottom of the canvas and said: “I assume you’re going to remove that.” Enraged, the artist – who is celebrated for precisely these types of painterly marks – offered to expunge the offending drip. He told the banker he had a “chainsaw out the back” and was more than happy to cut it out.
Hewson is very upfront about the fact that, in order for an artist to achieve their vision, they must face the commercial realities of undertaking a commission. This includes “a good insurance broker, a good lawyer, a good knowledge of how much things realistically cost”.
These are precisely the aspects of commis- sions that make art world purists squeamish. But without pragmatists like Hewson, the public spaces and corporate buildings that benefit most from being creatively and conceptually animated by commissioned artwork would remain soulless, concrete voids that do nothing to lift the banality and drudgery of everyday life.
Image: Mike Hewson, Palm Pole, 2018. Live palm tree, structural steel, pier foundation, computer-controlled irrigation system and other materials, dimensions variable. Courtesy: The artist.