public art meets public space in Atlantic City

by Erin Schwartz

Illustration by Andres Chang

published November 4, 2013

IT'S THE SUMMER OF 2013, and I’m watching an ad for Jersey Shore tourism in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. That fall, I had seen photos of the devastated beaches an hour away from my hometown—Long Beach Island, Seaside Heights, Manasquan—but most memorable were the pictures of the storm clouds passing over Atlantic City’s high-rise casinos. Now, in the commercial, Springsteen guitar plays while sun-kissed children trace “#strongerthanthestorm” on the beach with sandy fingers. Governor Chris Christie declares, “The Jersey Shore: open for business.” This is three years after the Atlantic City episode of Jersey Shore airs, in which Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and Snooki get into a fight over a comment about Snooki’s weight. They scream, battle lines are drawn, but the drama blows over and the cast still enjoys a night out at AC’s hip nightclubs, drinking bottles of vodka with blurred-out labels. Atlantic City’s reputation has been tied to this glitzy casino culture since the late 1970s. But the more recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy created a different narrative—the casino industry is failing, the city’s infrastructure is damaged, and Atlantic City needs to find a new act.

     Atlantic City hopes to revamp its image through the efforts of curator Lance Fung and his Artlantic project. Commissioned by the Atlantic City Alliance, a private group funded by state casino tax revenues, Fung’s Artlantic is a series of public art installations specifically designed for the area’s cultural and ecological context. The first exhibits were installed just before Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, and the last are slated to open in 2016. These installations are meant to counteract the negative images of Atlantic City, both an over-the-top, cultureless casino city and as a shore town facing economic trouble in the storm’s aftermath.




THE ARTLANTIC PROJECT HAS TWO SITES so far— Étude Atlantis, an installation on the boardwalk by John Roloff, and a green space titled Wonder which features landscape design by Diana Balmori and incorporates works by Kiki Smith, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, and Robert Barry. Roloff’s Étude Atlantis is a long stage, sloped slightly inward and bordered by slanted trees. Inspired by the search for Atlantis, the space is a large-scale optical illusion; the back wall and floor are painted with angular monochrome spirals that congregate on a mirrored “cistern” at its center. The piece functions as an interactive mural and performance space for dancers and musicians.

    The second installation, Wonder, is both public art and green space. Tucked away behind a row of buildings, the landscape designed by Balmori involves two circular mounds that form a figure eight, wildflowers planted in the center, and a tall screen of local beach grasses. Near one mound is a low garden of bright-red plants and sculpture of a woman holding the prone body of a doe, both by Kiki Smith.  A wooden pirate ship half-sunken in the sand by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov occupies the park’s other end.  Weaving between the two are conceptual artist Robert Barry’s text-based pieces. These giant colored letters spell out aspirational words—“BECOMING,”  “DESIRE,” “GLORIOUS,” “PERSONAL”—that illuminate at night and are a clever riff off of the kitschy casino signage nearby. Also part of the Wonder installation are “thrown ropes,” three snaking patterns of boulders, perennial evergreens, and annual flowers by Peter Hutchinson, as well as interactive birds’ nests built by Robert Lach and Victorian furniture with hurricane water-level marks by New Jersey artist Jediah Morfit.

     Curator Lance Fung is excited to speak about Wonder, because to him, its dual function as public art and public space represents a significant curatorial challenge. In an interview with the Independent, Fung said “[The Atlantic City Alliance] found out about me through the grapevine and approached me. They had no clue… if this should be a biennial or art fair, or an exhibition indoors… The ACA was set up to help promote Atlantic City and to show a different side of the city other than what you see in the headlines.” Given significant creative latitude by the ACA, Fung took into account the city’s resources and needs. He noticed that AC had many empty lots, “but in meetings with local people, I heard again and again, ‘we need a safe, clean, and green space.’” Instead of creating a straightforward art exhibit, Fung decided to use Artlantic as a platform to build the green space that the city lacked, creating a public art-park with the ACA’s funding that located high-art pieces in an outdoor space more accessible than a gallery. Fung said, “With all this money for an art show… I can create something that may be more necessary or useful—public space.”



THE WONDER INSTALLATION, FUNG'S park of public art, is not located on the main tourist thoroughfares. Fung hopes that its main users will be Atlantic City residents, not the visitors who come for the casinos and clubbing. He often mentions inclusiveness as a goal for Artlantic, contrasting Wonder with the central boardwalk that links casinos and tchotchke shops. “There are public spaces where people are not welcome… [like] The Boardwalk, which I saw as a pedestrian freeway. Poor residents are not welcome on the boardwalk, they are told ‘don’t come in unless you’re going to buy.’” The park is meant to provide a counterpoint—to show a side of AC not so saturated with the hyperconsumerism of the gambling industry. He is trying to build a space figuratively miles away from the gaudy Boardwalk casinos.

     However, it is unclear how the park will become an inclusive or well-used public space beyond the fact that Wonder is free to enter. Fung often draws a distinction between inclusive and exclusive spaces to explain his project, but also separates “art people” and “not art people.” He says, “I was working in a void… [due to] no local support from creative people” and expresses that “making art for tourists is watering down any intellectual merit.” Yes, art designed for tourists is often bad art; down the boardwalk from Roloff’s op-art mural is another interactive art piece, a life-sized Monopoly board with three-foot-tall green house pieces and oversized dice. It is designed for the photo op, and Fung may be right in assuming that visitors to AC are as attracted to its kitsch as they are to the artistic merits of Wonder and Étude Atlantis. But there is a tension between the mission of creating a welcoming public space and the hierarchy of good or bad aesthetics that is inherent to the project of curating.

     Fung hopes his project includes the city’s residents and excludes the glitz and kitsch that have made AC infamous. In fact, Wonder’s landscape was designed to block off the Boardwalk; Fung remembers asking himself, “How high can we make the mound so that they can’t see the casino or the strip club across the street?” But the distinction between desirable and undesirable aesthetics goes beyond aversion to tourism or over-the-top nightclubs—it conflicts with the public nature of the space Fung wants to create. If AC’s year-round residents think Wonder is ugly and do not use the park, in the view that divides “art people” and “not art people”, the park has not failed as a public space. Instead, the residents simply have bad taste and do not understand it.

     Speaking to this concern, Fung says, “people need to give the general population a bit more credit for appreciating art, and we also need to educate general public as to what it is.” Although he does trust that AC’s residents will enjoy the installations, underneath is still the idea that liking Artlantic is a sign of good taste, and that not everyone has good taste. Creating public space is crucial, and so is giving public artists the latitude to make good art that the public might hate. Fung is working to reconcile these two forms of public aesthetics, but there is a conflict of interest—though not an insurmountable one—between building democratic public space and the curator’s belief that the art is good, whether the public appreciates it or not.

     This is also what makes the project so exciting. Fung says that “a true success is in giving the project enough time to blossom,” and he is right—public space is judged on how well it ages and how well it is used, and hopefully the residents of Atlantic City will find in Wonder the well-designed green space they did not have before. On a larger scale, “Artlantis” was commissioned to save the Atlantic City tourist industry from itself. But anyone from the Garden State can tell that an attempt to remake AC will not stick unless it incorporates a certain amount of trashy Jersey joie de vivre. It will require a willingness to trim down the beach grass, reveal that there are casinos, strip clubs, and a giant Monopoly board nearby, and allow Artlantic to be part of Atlantic City.


ERIN SCHWARTZ B’15 would totally go clubbing with the cast of Jersey Shore.