Art blooms in unexpected public places

Site-specific dance, public art and an artful flower festival will delight visitors and Canberrans alike, while also challenging preconceptions of cultivating public spaces.
Three women are out in a field. One is carrying another one on her shoulders. They are mid-dance. They are wearing flame-coloured clothing.

When you think of art in public places, you often picture either sober, serious statues and monuments or wilder, freestyle street art, but in Canberra, creatives and curators are expanding the diversity of creative forms on offer. 

From site-specific dance to art among the blooming lovely annual celebration that is Floriade, when viewed collectively, such a diversity of forms may just help redefine people’s traditional definitions of street art.

The Australian Dance Party’s Director, Alison Plevey, is certainly adept at responding to site-specific spaces and transforming them in the process.

‘We are collaborators and celebrators of the ordinary and the extraordinary places around us, be they natural, urban, theatrical or transient,’ Plevey tells ArtsHub. ‘We love to engage playfully and meaningfully with the “real world” as a canvas when we go about creating dance.’

But what does place mean to Plevey, exactly? ‘It’s a physical setting, but also an energy and mindset where we invite both the artists and the audience to open up conversations through site-specific choreographies. Our immersive and social change-driven work creates a new kind of “geolocated” memory for often unsuspecting audiences.’

Neil Hobbs, the Chair of Canberra Art Biennial (and who curated the first four Biennials under the event’s original title, contour 556) talks enthusiastically about the impact of placing ‘temporary art in public spaces’ – especially in locations where you may not expect to find such artworks. 

‘Beside the lake, in the lake … in a stormwater drain, under a bridge and various forgotten or hidden corners of the Canberra landscape,’ Hobbs says.

‘Generally, people respond positively and say how their view of the space has changed after experiencing the artwork. So, in 2024 we will continue to present works that hopefully change perceptions of space and encourage a deeper appreciation of the Canberra landscape.’ 

In terms of offering Canberrans and other visitors a chance to experience dance works in public spaces, the Australian Dance Party believes in mixing things up. This has resulted in everything from free pop-up performances and roving festival works to ticketed shows, tour-style works and gallery performances. 

Previous collaborative projects with which the Australian Dance Party has been involved include Escape from Plastika, Lake March, Culture Cruise, Seamless, Symbiosis and Nervous.

‘Our family and kids’ show Escape from Plastika explores the sticky and complex subject of plastic and is always received with appreciation, because it reminds everyone about personal waste habits. Parents are intrigued at how their kids are enthralled with the combo of dance, song, story and environment that occurs in the local playground.’

Plevey says most such works ‘involve significant partnerships and collaboration with the places and communities where we are working’.

‘For instance, deepening our relationships with Ngunnawal and other First Nations artists and consultants within our projects is something we are focused on developing as we continue our place-based work,’ she says.

Audience reactions on seeing the troupe perform have been gratifying, she tells ArtsHub. ‘Most people are grateful and want to know who we are and what we do. Some have said, “I thought today was just going to be an ordinary day and then I saw you guys!”‘ 

Canberrans and visitors should also remember to stop and tiptoe through the tulips (and many other flowers) at Floriade, which this year has the theme of ‘Art in Bloom’. Now in its 37th year, Floriade transforms the city into a colourful canvas, with a million blooms located in Commonwealth Park, and 300,000 bulbs and annuals planted in community flower beds across the city. Visitors can wander through artistically designed floral displays and admire temporary sculptures alongside representations of architecture, literature, music, cinema and theatre.

The sense of delight and transformation that Floriade brings is also a part of Canberra Art Biennial’s approach to programming.

‘It’s OK to have fun, too,’ Hobbs says. ‘To that end, this year’s Biennale features playable sculptures by [Australian artist] Sanné Mestrom, who will install fibreglass interchangeable forms that will allow everyone to engage with a space through play.’

Collectively, Canberra’s upcoming celebrations of art in public spaces serve to delight individuals while also bringing the broader community together for shared moments of joy. 

As Alison Plevey says, ‘A collective moment in a shared space … can be powerful, particularly if people don’t see it often or it is an unexpected experience!’ 

Canberra Art Biennial runs from 27 September – 26 October 2024.
Floriade ‘Art in Bloom’ takes place over 14 September – 13 October 2024.
Learn more about the Australian Dance Party and be sure to Visit Canberra for more details about upcoming cultural events in the national capital.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy