World's Ugliest Public Art
The high-rises of Paris’s La Défense district have questionable company: César Baldaccini’s 40-foot-tall model of his own thumb. Given its pedestrian-flattening size and ugly wrinkles, there’s much to find, ahem, opposable.
It used to be that if you needed to perk up a street or park, a statue of a mustachioed general on horseback or a goddess in a toga would do nicely. But these days, being pretty or handsome just isn’t enough of a goal for public art: most attempt to make a splash, whether by being gigantic, stridently eclectic, borderline tasteless, or (ideally) some combination. And if that means bringing on the ugly, so be it.
To come up with candidates for the world’s ugliest public art, we sought pieces that shot for the moon and…missed. Size counted: a weird little mural might not be your cup of tea, but it’s a lot easier to overlook than a gargantuan sculpture of a starlet captured exposing her underwear, or an awkwardly proportioned monument that casts a pall on a whole neighborhood.
The design of public art is sometimes off-putting because it’s not only unattractive, but also downright perplexing. While public clocks are a time-honored tradition, consider the steam-belching model with a hole and a faux metronome on view in New York City’s Union Square. The clock’s 15 LED digits have been confusing passersby since 1999.
Of course, many of the artists whose work is featured here are probably in on the joke, and wouldn’t be bothered by a little ribbing. No one would ever make peeing automatons or an overstuffed rabbit if he or she weren’t ready to face a little blowback.
And if you find yourself thinking that a few of these works don’t deserve inclusion on this list, so much the better. We might have been too hasty. As the Boston art critic Greg Cook puts it, “Public art—even works we hate—should be given a chance. Years. Sometimes it takes a while for something to grow on you. Sometimes it takes a while just to figure something out.”
We’re not sure that that’s going to make many of these works much more palatable, but hey, you never can tell. In the meantime, we’ll continue to give the angry lady with dreads, the sinister monk, and all the rest a very wide berth.
Abbé Faria Statue, Goa, India
An 18th-century Portuguese monk who pioneered hypnotic techniques, Abbé Faria was honored in 1945 in the city of his birth with this rather unwholesome tribute. The novelist Evelyn Waugh called the thing “wildly vivacious,” saying that it captured the illustrious abbé at the “climax of an experiment, rampant over an entranced female.” Be that as it may, it’s easy to imagine that the abbé’s prostrate subject wishes that she could call the whole thing off and make a run for the beach instead.
Metronome, New York City
Ever wish that public clocks were harder to use? Then this overblown work, built in 1999 to celebrate the millennium, has your number. Mounted on a building facing buzzing Union Square, it includes a brick wall with a disembodied hand and a hole that halfheartedly belches steam at noon and midnight, an easily overlooked sphere that tracks the moon’s phases, and a faux metronome/pendulum that does…nothing. To the left is a row of 15 LED digits: to use this tourist-puzzler of a clock, check out the first four digits to get the (military-style) time of day. Ignore the rest.
Michael Jackson Statue, London
It’s a puzzle: why did the Fulham Football Club’s owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed (father of Dodi), place this stiff and unnatural statue of the begloved one directly outside the team’s stadium? Jackson is alleged to have attended only one game. In truth, Al-Fayed originally wanted an MJ statue to be outside Harrods, the posh department store he also owns. There’s no word on why he changed the location from a shopping paradise to a sporting one.
Peter the Great Statue, Moscow
Standing at more than 300 feet tall, Zurab Tsereteli’s 1997 sculpture of Peter the Great commemorates the czar’s maritime feats. Produced at enormous expense on an island on the Moscow River, the stainless-steel, bronze, and copper statue has never gotten much love from locals. (In fact, persistent rumors claim that “Peter” was once meant to be Christopher Columbus, but that Tsereteli couldn’t find a city to take him on.) Most of Moscow would love to find this controversial white elephant a new home, but the cost of relocation or demolition make it likely that Peter will remain anchored here for some time.
Forever Marilyn, Chicago
Sculpted by Seward Johnson, a high-kitsch artist with works as loathed as they are beloved, this 26-foot-tall aluminum photo op has been drawing sniggerers to a park near the Magnificent Mile (it’s there until Spring 2012). Inspired by The Seven Year Itch, it captures the moment when a rushing subway car brought a breeze up through a street grate, hiking up Marilyn’s dress, cooling her ankles, and raising onlookers’ heart rates in the process.
Amabel: Flowering Structure, Seoul
Frank Stella’s status as a blue-chip artist didn’t stop the people of Seoul from objecting to this 30-foot hunk of metal installed outside a steel company’s HQ. Named for an acquaintance of Stella’s who died in an air crash, the 1997 work brings to mind flower petals from some angles—and a terrible accident from most others. But it wasn’t popular enough with the public from any angle. When a plan to move it to a museum was deemed too pricey, the city attempted to camouflage it with a small group of trees instead.
Proudy (Piss), Prague
Created by the provocateur and artist David Černý, this sculpture of two swiveling, copper-clad bros urinating into a pool shaped like the Czech Republic is a high-tech homage to Brussels’ beloved Manneken Pis. In an experiential twist, you can send a text message to the sculpture (the number’s on a plaque nearby), and the accommodating animatronic dudes will “write” your text in the water.
Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo
Spread over 80 acres, this sylvan expanse is enlivened by more than 200 works by Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943), whose highly mystical and goth-friendly style often seems to reflect the fatalism of the first half of the 20th century. If a relief of a couple embracing a skeleton (kinky!) or the statue of a Goliath-like figure being attacked by irate babies doesn’t disrupt your picnic, then maybe admiring the sculptures of a woman prancing with snaky dreadlocks will.
Lebensretter-Brunnen (Lifesaver Fountain), Duisburg, Germany
The proudly gaudy works of French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle turn up in parks and museums the world over. This piece, done in collaboration with Jean Tinguely, depicts a round-rumped woman holding on for dear life to a gaudy bird with beefy legs and huge red talons. If she’s taking comfort in a monster like this, though, you have to wonder what she just saw behind her.
Le Pouce (The Thumb), Paris
Given its pedestrian-flattening size and an extravagant number of wrinkles, there’s much to find opposable (ahem) in César Baldaccini’s 40-foot-tall model of his own thumb. That said, it’s a perky, positive digit that more than holds its own among the high-rise offices and headquarters in Paris’s La Défense district. And in any case it could be worse—at least Baldaccini didn’t choose a different finger of his to immortalize.
Blue Mustang, Denver International Airport
Between unmanned check-in kiosks, overpriced sandwiches, and stressful security lines, the modern airport holds much that’s unpleasant, but to our knowledge only DIA makes you face down a 32-foot, darker-than-a-Smurf hell beast. The rearing, 4.5-ton fiberglass horse seems poised to stomp on innocent travelers just trying to leave town. All joking aside, the statue really is a killer—its creator, Luis Jiménez, died when a section fell on him in his studio.
Der Hase—Hommage à Dürer (The Hare—a Homage to Dürer), Nuremberg,Germany
This dazed or possibly dead rabbit seems unaware of the swarm of mice that shares its busted-up crate. Positioned outside of Albert Dürer’s house in Nuremberg, the nightmarish sculpture by Jürgen Goertz is a satiric take on a much more pleasingly proportioned bunny—the one immortalized in Dürer’s watercolor Der Feldhase.