Public art that the public unmakes: the work of Juliana Capes


A piece I wrote for artist Juliana Capes, ahead of her participation in Deptford X. For more information on Juliana’s work, visit her website.

It’s 23 June, 2016, and Juliana Capes is making what will later become one of my favourite pieces of art. My three-year-old daughter is making it too, and Juliana’s children, and some friends of ours, and some complete strangers, including a guy who we’re pretty sure is planning to steal it afterwards.

This is Annul, an outdoor installation created for the Leith Late festival in Scotland. Over the course of a whole day, a group of people – Juliana, some pre-arranged volunteers, and any passers-by who feel like joining in – hammer £250 worth of pennies into the cracks in a pavement on Leith Walk, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets. Gradually a large circular bronze mosaic emerges like a flower clock. The theme of the piece is luck. Cracks in the pavement are thought to be unlucky (because they tend to make you fall) but coins found on the pavement are thought to be lucky. Could one of these things cancel out – annul – the other? As Juliana says, “Is luck a currency? Can we earn it? Can we choose to spend it wisely? What about if we have none at all?”

This last part has an obvious resonance in Leith, a place where luck is in short supply for many families. At first Juliana worries that it will seem decadent, hammering £250 (the whole of her festival fee) into the pavement in a place like this. She wonders whether it would feel different if she’d just spent £250 on art materials and left them on the pavement. I appreciate her concern but tell her she is not exactly the KLF burning a million quid.

Annul gets a lot of attention though. Throughout the day lots of people stop to ask what it’s all about, curious, occasionally wary, and then – as Juliana talks them through the idea – engaged and supportive. A lot of them stop to help. Children love it, delighted to have an excuse to crawl around on a pavement; some invent their own version of hopscotch across the coins. And then there’s one guy, in particular, who loiters nearby for hours, intrigued, asking questions, before eventually joining in. It becomes apparent that he is casing the joint. As soon as we are finished he is planning to take all the money.

Juliana is fine with this. Like Andy Goldsworthy’s fragile, intricate stick sculptures, soon swept away by wind, rain or tide, Annul is mostly about the process (and, in this case, the involvement of so many people in its creation). “My installations are rarely permanent,” she tells me later. “I do care about beauty, I can’t help it and I’m attracted to objects and to making. But it’s liberating to let go.”

What will remain after Annul is not the installation itself but documentation (photographs, and a time lapse film discreetly shot from a window above). Juliana never expected £250 of coins to be left alone in a public, unguarded place for long. Besides, the guy looks like he could use the money. And he did help to create Annul, so arguably he has as much right to it as the rest of us. In a sense, he will not be committing theft at all, simply staking a claim on a piece of art that was partly created by him.


I like Annul very much. In purely visual terms, it reminds me of lots of things I love, from Gaudi’s tile work in Parc Guell in Barcelona to seaside town amusement arcade coin machines. Sometimes I think it looks like a piece of religious art, a cross between a stained glass window and a stone circle; this may be partly because creating it feels like a ritualistic act. Conceptually, it reminds me of The Obliteration Room, an interactive artwork for children designed in 2002 by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and restaged numerous times due to its popularity. A room in a gallery is painted completely white, and young visitors are encouraged to add brightly coloured stickers, wherever they like. As hours, days and weeks pass, there is a slow motion explosion of red, yellow, blue, green pink, all over the floor, walls and furniture. Like The Obliteration Room, Annul mostly entrusts the act of creation to its audience, the artist merely providing a guiding hand. And it is more rewarding the more you invest in it.

Both Annul and The Obliteration Room feel very much of their time. Thanks to the internet and mobile phones, we are living in a golden age of crowd-sourced creativity, from art projects like The Exquisite Forest, The One Million Masterpiece and Unnumbered Sparks, to the film Life in a Day and the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five Minute Theatre. In taking place out in the real world, Annul is perhaps closer in spirit to earlier works like Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, or Yoshihara Jiro’s Please Draw Freely, but like all these projects it challenges the idea of the artist as revered genius, separate from their audience. Instead it offers collaboration, community, connection, equality – and what better way to do all that than to encourage everyone, the artist included, to sit on the ground together building a circle?

Unlike The Obliteration Room, Annul isn’t aimed at children, but the whole experience definitely appeals to my inner child. This is equally true of Juliana‘s other work. In Exodus, dozens of brightly coloured umbrellas ascend in formation, through a window and into the street, like a flock of migrating birds. It is as magical as Mary Poppins soaring into the air. She does something similar with Loveletters, in which that familiar symbol of childhood creativity, the paper aeroplane, is also transformed into a flock of colourful birds. She has, significantly I think, made four installations – Aquifier, Meltwater, Narcissus, and her most recent project, Breakers – from that most coveted of childhood objects, the balloon.

It’s become a cliché to say that artists strive for years to create the kind of work children make without thinking. Blame that famous Picasso quote (“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”) Juliana, it seems to me, has made the transition Picasso describes more seamlessly than most. Not that her work is child-like in any reductive sense – it has a subtlety and sophistication that only a deep-thinking adult could achieve – but something about its simple sense of wonder and transformation, its ability to make everyday objects extraordinary, reminds me of the best children’s art, theatre and cinema.

Exodus makes me think of the closing scene of the film The Red Balloon, as if those umbrellas could sweep you up into the air with them. Juliana’s earlier street-based artwork, Pavement Astronomer (in which bits of chewing gum left on the street are joined up by lines of chalk to make constellations) reminds me of the children’s book Beautiful Oops, in which little accidents – a torn piece of paper, spilled paint – are transformed into penguins, elephants, fish and other creatures. Beautiful Oops is as popular with adults as it is with children, and no wonder – it is, on a deeper level, a book about finding beauty and hope in the face of disaster and disappointment. Pavement Astronomer is too, I think. It is, more or less literally, about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars.

I miss the end of Annul because I have to put my kids to bed. The installation is completed around 9pm, I hear. Those still there at that point have a drink, look at their creation for a little while, and then head home or to the Leith Late party. Immediately afterwards a small group of people, who have been waiting for this opportunity for several hours, sweep in with plastic bags, and within minutes Annul is annihilated. Half of them, Juliana is pleased to observe, are children. In a way they are completing the work – “a piece of public art that the public unmakes” as she describes it.


Something similar later happens to Breakers, an installation on the seafront at Portobello in Edinburgh, close to where Juliana lives with her husband and two children. Created in August 2016 for Art Walk Porty, Breakers consists of 70 water filled balloons hanging in a bandstand by the ocean, in a formation that mimics a breaking wave. It survives a little longer than Annul – a whole day – but balloons left on a promenade overnight are, as you’d expect, as vulnerable as coins on a pavement. In this case it is a group of teenagers who destroy it – bursting all the balloons and getting soaked in the process, unaware that the moment is being captured in another time lapse film.

Juliana is delighted. “I never thought I’d feel so elated about something I made being destroyed,” she tells me afterwards. She wonders whether teenage vandalism is what happens to the playfulness of children before teenage nihilism suffocates it. Indeed, is it part of that childhood creativity Picasso talks about?

It also seems like a symbolically fitting climax to Breakers, a word that can mean either a heavy sea wave or a person who breaks something (as well as a period of emotional vulnerability). As Juliana puts it: “The world is constantly unmaking itself. Things fall apart. Waves break. Everything breaks. Why should art be the thing that has to last? Making art is a process of making yourself vulnerable in public. If you are lucky then people engage with your work. In this case the public became the breakers.”

A footnote: the morning after Annul, I take a bus up Leith Walk. Passing the street corner where my children and I spent a couple of hours the previous day, there is no sign that any of it ever happened. And yet, looking at it with fresh eyes, an ordinary pavement suddenly looks like a magical place. And I think to myself, Annul has done its job.

Juliana Capes will be making a version of Annul in London on 23 September as part of Deptford X Festival Fringe, 23 September to 3 October. Footage of Breakers (as staged in Portobello) and Annul (as staged in Leith) will also feature in the festival.



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