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Analysing Public Art and Geography

How can public art challenge the gendered nature of space? The world is getting more and more visual, and increasingly meanings are communicated through visuals (Rose, 2001). It is the aim of this research proposal to outline the final year project that is going to focus on interdisciplinary themes of space, art and gender. It will demonstrate how human geography engages with visual art, and how the research linking the two has expanded over the past few decades. It will show the issues that one may be presented with when researching art. An explanation will be given of how gender and body are viewed in geography.
Geography and visual art
Geography is recognised as a very visual discipline (Driver, 2003; Tolia-Kelly, 2012), that extensively engages with our vision (Roberts, 2012), and geographers have long been using various types of visual imagery and objects in their work (Garrett, 2011; Rose, 2003). Over the past decades, namely since the cultural turn, there has been greater interest in potential links between visual arts and geography (Rose, 2001). During this time the field of research has expanded from looking at landscape paintings from earlier centuries, to analysing broader spectrum of artistic mediums, both digital and analogue (Hawkins, 2012). It is understood that everyday images and objects that we see are not meaningless and static things, but are imbued with meanings that affect our behaviour and interaction with the world (Hall, 1997).
Art in public space
The term ‘art’ itself is an extremely broad concept, and there are many sub-disciplines in art that can be used to narrow down the research. This particular research is going to be focused on art in urban space. Nowadays many urban spaces are rich with artworks which are done in various mediums, and by utilising various methods. Arguably the traditional form of art in public space is public art. Public art commonly is defined as “either permanent or temporary artworks, including social and contextual art practices which are commissioned for openly accessible locations, that is, outside conventional settings such as museums and galleries (Zebracki, 2013:303).”
An artwork may have an intended meaning, a set of ideas or ideals that its author wants the world to receive, and a meaning that is created by the audience upon its consumption (Baldwin et al., 1999). What makes it hard to predict how public art will be consumed, are the diverse publics or audiences that encounter it. A piece of art may be aimed at general public, but when different social groups read it , the diversity of meanings that it actually produces have to be taken into account. Therefore, in this sense the study of public art becomes a study of “the reception of art by [its] publics (Miles, 1997:85).”
Geography, body and gender
Geographers see body as a space. Many quote Rich when he talks about the body as “the geography closest in (1986:212).” It is the border between the inner world and the outer world. It is a space that is sexed and gendered, where sex is a biological product and gender a social one (Valentine, 2001). However, more recent academic work blurs the lines between the two, arguing that there is evidence of cases where bodies do not abide by the traditional views of sex and gender (Cream, 1995), and that both should be considered as social (Valentine, 2001).
In social research gender is understood as “social, psychological or cultural differences between men and women (Knox and Pinch, 2010:235).” Historically geographers have viewed differences in gender roles as socially constructed (Castree et al., 2013). Therefore, characteristics that constitute what it means to be masculine or feminine are subject to change in space, place and time. More recently academics such as Judith Butler (1990) have challenged this view, and suggest that gender is a performance, rather than what one is. She argues that gender is performed through ritualistic repetition. From this viewpoint, which some call as post?structuralist (Jagger, 2008), gender is “sustained through acts, gestures, mannerisms, fashion, and lifestyle (Castree et al., 2013:172).”
Identities, roles and spatial relations between males and females in geography have often been analysed utilising feminist viewpoint. Predominant argument of feminist philosophy is that women in many areas of life are still unfairly treated as being in a subordinate position to men, and that the Western society remains largely patriarchal (Knox and Pinch, 2010).
New Genre Public Art, Body and Gender
Massey (1994) describes how large public spaces are reserved for males, and how often artworks depicting bodies of women are produced by men contributing to the male gaze, which extends outside the walls of galleries and museums (Miles, 1997). This prevalent masculine worldview is challenged by activism that is empowered by forms of new genre public art (Lacy, 1995).
If we are to consider the relationship between public art and gender, the historical divorce that has existed between body and city, where most public artworks are found, should be kept in mind. Undesirable body processes are expelled from the city, and the civilised body is expected to contain them (Miles, 1997). This idea comes from the Cartesian view that body should be subject to mind (Longhurst, 1997). In Western culture body has become associated with negative traits, emotions and femininity, and mind with rationality, knowledge and masculinity (Valentine, 2001). Furthermore, it is somehow seen that men transcend the body, for whom it is merely a container of their mind, and that women are more affected by their “fleshy” (Longhurst, 1997:491) instincts and therefore their bodies.
Moreover, this view has had an influence on social sciences. Rose (1993) argues that white males tend to other difference, and that this has shaped how geography has been studied over the years. It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that academics started to critically look at how mind has been given privilege over the body in geography (Longhurst, 1997), and it was recognised that in fact everyone is affected by their embodiment (Rose, 1997).
Body is the tool through which masculinity or femininity is acted out (Puwar, 2004). As performativity suggests, these materialise through the act of doing. It is therefore the aim of this research to analyse how public art captures these performances, and how it communicates and constructs gender in the eyes of its publics.
Case study
Butler’s work is often linked with gender and performativity, but it is rarely used when public art is studied. This research will try to expand the body of work on new genre public art considering gender politics. It will take into the account the latest research on gender and performativity, and will analyse how perceived gender roles are read through performances and acts that are captured in public artworks. Greater Manchester has been chosen as the site for the research, with public artworks that range from sculptures depicting historic figures from Britain’s imperial past, such as, Queen Victoria, to contemporary street art that seeks to challenge the status quo, such as found in Northern Quarter.
This research proposal outlined the final year project that will analyse public art and gender by looking at performances that are captured in artworks. It demonstrated how body and gender are understood in geography. It showed how body is an agent through which gender is acted out, and how body as an artistic subject captures these performances. Art has been an important part of geographical work and research in the past, and as the visual imagery and objects become more important in the modern society, more and more meanings are conveyed through visuals. This research will explore what meanings public art conveys about gender roles, and how these meanings are read by artworks’ publics.
The main aim of this research is: to analyse the way public art can challenge the gendered nature of space.
The objectives to achieve this are: to explore the way that Tankpetrol aims to disrupt traditional genderings of public space; to analyse the meanings encoded in the artwork of Tankpetrol; to analyse the consumption of Tankpetrol’s artwork and how it impacts on people’s ideas of gendering public space.
References Baldwin, E., Longhurst, B., McCracken, S., Ogborn, M. and Smith, G. (1999) Introducing Cultural Studies. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.
Castree, N., Kitchin, R. and Rogers, A. (Eds.). (2013). A Dictionary of Human Geography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cream, J. (1995) ‘Re-solving riddles: the sexed body.’ In Bell, D. and Valentine, G. (eds.) Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities. London: Routledge,
Driver, F. (2003) ‘On Geography as a Visual Discipline.’ Antipode, 35(2) pp. 227–231.
Garrett, B. L. (2011) ‘Videographic geographies: Using digital video for geographic research.’ Progress in Human Geography, 35(4) pp. 521–541.
Hall, S. (1997) ‘Introduction.’ In Hall, S. (ed.) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: SAGE, pp. 1–12.
Hawkins, H. (2012) ‘Geography and art. An expanding field: Site, the body and practice.’ Progress in Human Geography, 37(1) pp. 52–71.
Jagger, G. (2008) Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the
Performative. London: Routledge.
Knox, P. and Pinch, S. (2010) Urban Social Geography: An Introduction. 6th ed., London: Pearson.
Longhurst, R. (1997) ‘(Dis)embodied geographies.’ Progress in Human Geography, 21(4) pp. 486–501.
Miles, M. (1997) Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures. London: Routledge.
Puwar, N. (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.
Rich, A. (1986) The Politics of Location, in Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979–1985. London: Norton

Sudha Chandran: Biography and Profile

Sudha Chandran
On January 28th, 1984, Sudha Chandran stood behind the curtain, staring at the crowd nervously and waiting for the crowd to settle down. It had been a while since she had danced on the stage. The accident had not only left her dejected but also left her fans sceptical about her ability to return to the sacred dance floor. How can a single-legged person dance Bharatnatyam, one of the most intricate Indian dances?

She proved everyone wrong. Her dance left the audience spellbound. Sudha was known to have this captivating effect since childhood. The young Sudha was a plethora of talent. She was born on September 21st, 1964 in Mumbai. She is the only child of K.D. Chandran and Mrs. Thangam. Her mother was an exceptionally good singer and her father was an art lover. They instilled in her the love for singing and dancing. Sudha started dancing at the tender age of 3. Seeing how well Sudha was dancing on her own, her father took her to the famous dance school of Mumbai, ‘Kala Sadan’.
The principal of the school refused to admit Sudha as she was below the age-limit. Her father pleaded with the principal to at least see Sudha dance and then make the decision. Needless to say, the principal was mesmerised with Sudha’s dance and immediately admitted her in the school. Here, her talent was nurtured under the guidance of her teachers. By the age of 17, she had already performed 75 stage shows and gained popularity for her effortless and graceful dancing.
Her parents were her support system. They were very particular about her studies and wanted her to be the best in whatever she did. Her mother left her job and stayed at home so that Sudha’s upbringing was not compromised. She made sure that Sudha went to school, completed her homework, went for the dance class, ate healthy and slept on time. There was no scope of lack of discipline in Sudha’s life. Life was not always dull for her. She was always full of life and made life-long friends during her college days. They went to watch movies together and have road-side food.
Life took a sudden turn on 5th May, 1981. She was travelling overnight for a pilgrimage with her parents when her bus collided with a truck resulting in the immediate death of the driver and severe injuries to the passengers. Sudha’s legs were stuck in the wreckage. She was admitted to a government hospital in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. Initially, the doctors thought that she had a minor fracture and treated the leg by putting a plaster on it. It turned out to be a huge mistake. When she went for a check-up to a hospital in Chennai, then Madras, the doctors found out that a wound had not been cleaned properly and, with the plaster on, it had developed gangrene. Whenever gangrene develops in the body, the body part has to be amputated to save the person’s life. Sudha’s leg was amputated in order to save her life.
It left Sudha’s heart filled with sadness and her body without a limb. For a dancer, especially of her calibre, it was a major setback. As she couldn’t dance anymore she put all her efforts and energy into studies. She had already finished her B.A degree and was pursuing her M.A in Economics from Mithibai College, Mumbai. The family was heartbroken. Her family had dreamt big for their only daughter. However, no one showed Sudha any pity. They might have been hurting inside, but when they sat together they would talk as if nothing had happened. This helped in avoiding any scope of sympathy and pity for her disability. It was a tremendous attempt to treat her like a person without disability. Through these trying times, her major source of inspiration was her father. He never showed any sign of pity on her daughter and still expected her to have a good life. She learnt to draw strength from her pain. She tried to walk with the help of the crutches as she refused to use a wheelchair. Six months after the amputation she came across an article which changed her life and staged the rebirth of an outstanding dancer.

Dr. Sethi was gaining worldwide popularity for manufacturing artificial legs known as the ‘Jaipur Foot’. She could manage to get an appointment with Dr. Sethi, but only after a week because of his busy schedule. Meanwhile, she convinced her parents and set off for Jaipur. Dr. Sethi was stunned by her determination. She refused to leave for Mumbai without getting a foot. He listened intently and understood her requirements. Due to many positions of the foot while performing Bharatnatyam, she needed a more flexible foot than there was. Dr.Sethi created the foot with many nuts and bolts so that it could be bent in any position. When Dr. Sethi presented her with one of the kind foot, Sudha asked him if she could dance again. Dr. Sethi wore the foot and did two dance steps to demonstrate what the foot could do. Sudha knew that the foot would give her, her life back.
She practiced dance, wearing the artificial foot, for several hours a day. At times, the pain would be excruciating and often it would bleed, especially when the movements of the foot became fast. But, that didn’t stop Sudha for making her dream a reality; once again. She was surrounded by people who believed in her, especially Dr. Sethi and her parents. Dr. Sethi believed in her and her strength to withstand any adversity. With the support of her loved ones and Dr.Sethi, her confidence and desire to perform on the stage started to return.
On 28th January, 1984, after two years of dance practice with the ‘Jaipur Foot’, she performed on the stage at the ‘South India Welfare Society’ of Mumbai. By the time Sudha finished her stellar performance, the entire audience stood up to see the dance of willpower. They could not imagine that a person with an artificial limb could perform such delicate and fast-moving steps. According to Sudha, ‘Once I was on stage, I forgot about my artificial foot. I could only remember that I was performing after a long time and that I had to give my best. The audience’s energy got transformed into my energy.’
Her life inspires people from all walks of life. Ramoji Rao, a Telgu producer approached her with a script titled, ‘Mayuri’ which was loosely based on Sudha’s life. She agreed to play the lead actress and overnight she became a star after the release of the film in 1984. She was presented with a special award ‘Silver Lotus’ and a sum amount of 5,000/- for her role in the film ‘Mayuri’ at the 33rd National Film Festival. In 1986, Ramoji Rao made a Hindi version of the film and titled it ‘Nache Mayuri’. The film was enjoyed by the audiences all across the globe, adding to her popularity. Through ‘Mayuri’, her inspirational story was able to reach out to millions of people across the globe. She believes that everything happens for a reason. She did not let one setback in life ruin her future, “The accident was a blessing in disguise because without it I would have been just like millions of other dancers. But, dancing with the Jaipur foot makes me one of a kind.”

Over the years, she started concentrating more on her acting career. She became part of the small screen and film songs. During the shooting of one of her films, she met Ravi Dang, an assistant director back then. Since then, they have been inseparable. They both provided emotional support to each other. Ravi Dang now manages her dance academy called Natya Mayuri Sudhachandran Dance Academy which is in Ville Parle, Mumbai. She has also established herself as an actress in both on the small screen and in the films. Her name will always be synonymous with courage and dedication. If one thing can be learnt from her life, it is to never give up.
Word Galaxy:
misfortune; harsh conditions
to surgically remove a limb for medical reasons
ability; talent
extremely painful; unbearable
decomposition of body tissue due to obstructed circulation or bacterial infection.
complex; elaborate
holy; revered
trying times
period of time of hardships or difficulties
Fresh Facts:
Prior to the accident, she had received two important awards: Nritya Mayuri from the Dance Academy and Bharatnatyam and Nav Jyoti from the Telgu Academy.
Dr. Sethi is a specialist in artificial limbs. He is also a recipients of the Raman Magasassay Award.
She won the National Film Award – Special Jury Award for her role in Mayuri.