Powerful Works of Public Art in the World

The history of powerful public iconography is long—and fraught. Here are eight works across the world that startled audiences and began other important political discussions.

Banksy’s Flying Balloons Girl

Roll your eyes if you will at the still-anonymous artist’s provocations—they do grab attention. An early, powerful work of Banksy’s, Flying Balloons Girl, uses the trope of the innocuous young girl, much as the bronze Wall Street sculpture does. The stenciled work of a young girl such as you might see in an old time-y children’s book appeared in 2005. She’s holding tight to a bunch of balloons as they begin to carry her afloat. But in Flying Balloons she’s spray-painted onto the wall in the West Bank that separates the Palestinian Territories and Israel.

Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—better known as Pussy Riot—were arrested in 2012 after disrupting a church service in Moscow. The impromptu performance of the band’s song “Punk Prayer,” in which they shout “Mother Mary, please drive Putin away,” protests the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Russia’s president, whom the trio see as an imperialist autocrat. The feminist band was sentenced to two years in prison on the charge of “hooliganism” because they offended churchgoers and “had intended to insult the Russian Orthodox Church and undermine public order.”

Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch

Sometimes a simple demonstration works best. Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson teamed up with a geologist named Minick Rosing in 2015 to import from southern Greenland 12 icebergs, which he arranged like the 12 digits on a clock. During the Paris Climate Conference he installed them in Paris’s Place du Pantheon, so onlookers could watch them melt, in his site-specific work Ice Watch. The 12 blocks took 12 days to disintegrate—the length of the conference. The ten-ton pieces of ice traveled via shipping container to Denmark and then ten hours by truck to reach the City of Light, according to a report in The New Yorker at the time.

Ai Weiwei’s Berlin project

Early last year dissident artist Ai Weiwei made waves in an unnamed follow-up installation drawing attention to the refugee crisis in Europe. (It may have been damage control after his previous work on the subject, a photograph where he substituted himself for the image of the drowned Syrian three-year-old without much embellishment, fell very flat.) Last month, Wei, whose family was taken to a Chinese labor camp when he was only a year old, strung up about 14,000 bright orange life jackets used by refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and seeking refuge in Europe along the columns of a well-trafficked Berlin concert hall. While it might seem like a misplaced effort—Germany takes in more refugees than any other country in Europe—the piece was mounted to coincide with the Berlinale, a massive film festival that attracts Hollywood power brokers, celebrities, and the press.

The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi

The rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is generally a place of respite, where simple sculptures are installed in the summer and visitors can gaze out at the city after a long day wandering through the institution’s massive collections. But in the summer of 2013, artist Imran Qureshi, who hails from Lahore, Pakistan, transformed that space into an explicit war zone in his installation work And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean. Painted all in blood red, flowers and intricate patterns emerge from what looks on its face like the scene after a bombing. Qureshi explained that the grand metaphor in the piece is that violence can obscure but not extinguish life.