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Annual Public Art Symposium at U of L Examines Art and Social Practice

The University of Louisville will once again explore topics in public art at a symposium Friday at the University Club. This is the fourth year the university has hosted local, regional and national guests to discuss “Public Art and the City,” covering topics ranging from public art preservation to its role in environmental sustainability.Miranda Lash, the Speed Art Museum’s newly-appointed curator of contemporary works, will interview conceptual artist Mel Chinfor the day’s keynote presentation. Lash organized Chin’s first career retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where she served as modern and contemporary art curator until July, when she joined the Speed. Chin’s work is known for how it interacts with environmental, political and social themes, like his site-specific “Revival Field,” a replicated field test using special hyperaccumulator plants to extract heavy metals from zinc- and cadmium-contaminated soil at landfill sites.“Something I really appreciate about Mel is that even when he creates an artwork that is very site-specific, he also uses new artworks to interpret his understanding of the piece,” she said.“For every version of Revival Field he did, and he did several—one in Minnesota, one in Pennsylvania, one in Germany and one in the Netherlands—for each iteration he created a drawing of one of the hyperaccumulator plants that’s being tested, and he made the drawing out of zinc-point, a zinc pencil.”The keynote discussion will address art as social practice, a term that Lash said exists on a wide spectrum, from the environmental discourse Chin’s “Revival Field” engages to more loosely-defined outcomes.“Some artists define it as simply, my art involves other people, in other words it involves the participation of others to exist. Some artists define it more specifically, as my art provides a social benefit of some kind, whether it’s increasing awareness about an issue or providing resources,” said Lash.But Lash cautions against thinking of artists as solely political activists. She said Chin, for example, said his art is a mechanism for making previously-unexamined options visible. "Art's strength is that it acts poetically. It embeds itself in our brains and it's open-ended in its interpretation," she said. "It certainly can be very powerful when it incites change, but I'm always cautions in saying there's a direct link." Lash said she’s still feeling out the community’s public art landscape, which will be part of Friday’s programming as well. She said the enthusiasm she’s found locally is encouraging as she and her colleagues, like Sarah Lindgren, who heads up the Commission on Public Art for the Mayor’s Office, consider the possibilities of new public installations.“The best pieces of public art, I would argue, have a sense of fit with their environment,” said Lash. “We use the phrase in the industry ‘plop art’ to describe art works that seem to have been dropped from a helicopter on site, and there’s nothing wrong with that if they’re wonderful works of art but I think people tend to relate more to something that there’s a rationale and a reason for it being there.”And a final portion of the day will be dedicated to considering art’s place at the university, a topic that’s of special interest to Lash as she looks forward to 2016, when the renovated and expanded Speed Art Museum will re-open with an art park on the Belknap campus.“It’s going to be an extremely high-traffic part of campus. So there’s all kinds of interesting questions that we’re asking like what kind of art work can withstand high traffic, in a very physical sense but also what’s going to attract attention, what’s going to be beloved by students, what’s going to work for them,” she said.