Most Iconic Public Art Around the World
Art is defined as "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination...producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."
Travelers seeking this emotional power make art exploration a central part of their itinerary, checking out not only museums, but spectacular public-art installations.
While nearly every city in the world has some piece of free, public art worth looking at, some contain pieces that are downright iconic. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as is art. But we think it’d be hard to argue that the following installations — from the gorgeous to the subversive to the wonderfully bizarre — are the most memorable.
Yellow Pumpkin - Naoshima Island, Japan
On a beach on Naoshima Island, you’ll find an unexpected sight: an enormous yellow pumpkin adorned with black spots.
The sculpture has become the icon of this modern-art-focused island, which also features a red pumpkin by the same artist and several other cutting-edge installations and exhibitions.
The piece’s creator — the eccentric Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma, born in 1929 — is today the world's top-selling female artist, but her road to fame was painful. Art was her life-long ambition, but she’s also been open about using it as therapy to overcome her many personal demons, effectively using bright color and polka dots to combat darkness.
This pumpkin is one of many she’s created, but it is without a doubt the most famous.
Various Pieces by David Cerny - Prague, Czech Republic
When you pop into the covered Lucerna Palace shopping arcade and see a horse with its rider hanging from the ceiling, you know you're in David Cerny's neighborhood.
This famous sculpture features King (and later Saint) Wenceslas riding what appears to be a dead horse, turned upside down. It’s a subversive take on a more conventional statue of the King on a horse in nearby Wenceslas Square.
Prague-born Cerny is famous for embracing and encouraging controversy, as he did with his first installation: painting a Soviet tank pink. He's made gigantic babies crawl up the ugly Prague TV tower (since removed) and built two (mechanical) peeing men, made to look like they’re urinating on an outline of the Czech Republic.
At the Futura Gallery Prague, there’s a Cerny installation of two people leaning through a wall. Visitors can climb a ladder and stick their heads through the men's backsides to watch a provocative video featuring politician Václav Klaus and the artist Milan Knížák delightedly feeding each other mash to the tune of "We Are The Champions" by Queen.
As always, Cerny is nothing if not memorable.
Puppy - Bilbao, Spain
Go to any souvenir shop in Bilbao, and you'll find a take on the Puppy by Jeff Koons, be it a miniature version, a mug or a tea towel.
Puppy, a 43-foot-high sculpture of a West Highland terrier sitting in front of the equally iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, is not your average sculpture, but a living topiary garden flowering throughout the year. Some 70,000 flowers grow here in 44,000 pounds of soil, all held together by a steel frame.
Artist Jeff Koons is a master of large pop-art sculptures depicting kitschy objects and toys, such as huge balloon dogs and flowers in garish colors. As one of the best-known and beloved popular contemporary artists, he even collaborated with luxury brand Louis Vuitton in 2017, to create a limited-edition series of bags depicting various iconic paintings like the Mona Lisa.
Cloud Gate - Chicago, Illinois
This enormous, shiny bean reflecting Chicago's iconic skyline is a must-see.
Breathtaking in scale, the attraction measures 33 x 66 x 43 feet and weighs 110 tons. It is polished regularly throughout the day to keep fingerprints at bay and cost an estimated $23 million, funded by private donations, to build.
Judging by the massive crowds that regularly flock to “The Bean,” it seems the investment was worth it.
Sir Anish Kapoor, an Indian-British artist, likes playing with shapes and forms, creating ever-new perspectives, often using color or polishing his works so they shine in the extreme. His success resulted in him becoming the first living artist to host a solo show at the renowned Royal Academy of the Arts in London. He’s also represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, won the prestigious Turner prize for British visual arts, and was knighted in 2013.
Floralis Genérica - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since 2002, this enormous silver flower has been opening its 43-foot-long petals every morning to reveal four long stamens. Every night, at sunset, it closes again.
Sitting in a reflective pond outside the National Museum of Fine Arts, the flower provides the perfect photo-op for visitors. Like “the bean” sculpture in Chicago, it’s a reflective, interactive piece, catching the sunlight and mirroring the city in its petals.
The sculpture was created and paid for by renowned Argentinian architect Eduardo Catalano (1917-2010), who studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard School of Graduate Design, taught architecture in London, and during his lifetime won praise from Frank Lloyd Wright for his understanding of the relationship between space and structure.
None of his pieces better represent this understanding than the brilliant Floralis Genérica.
Inside Australia - Lake Ballard, Western Australia
Quite literally in the middle of nowhere, in the outback of Australia hundreds of miles from civilization, on a large, shimmering salt lake, there is art.
Driving 500 miles east from Perth on a single road where you can go for hours without seeing another car, you will suddenly come across 51 human figures, stick-thin but life size, strewn across 10 square miles of the lake.
These incredible sculptures were placed at the lake in 2003 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Perth Art Fair, and have remained there since.
After the exhibition, the sculptures were sold to the state of Western Australia by British artist Antony Gormley (see Angel of the North, later on this list) for a token sum of $1. Now valued at $6 million, they have become the target of crooks and vandals, who have stolen two of the sculptures and damaged another.
Cumil and Others - Bratislava, Slovakia
Cumil is one of Bratislava's main attractions. Peeping out of a manhole, he seems to be a sewer-worker having a little rest as he watches the world go by. He was placed in Bratislava's old town in 1997, together with other sculptures that have turned Bratislava’s cobbled streets into a veritable art trail.
Watch out for the Paparazzi, poised to take your picture from behind a corner; the Napoleon soldier who, in full dress uniform, rests on a park bench and watches market shoppers on the main square; the Beautiful Náci, dressed to the nines, waving his top hat at passers-by; and the shaggy-haired youth sitting in front of a hairdressing salon.
These and other playful sculptures, by various artists, have been installed in an effort to “pretty up” old town with art.
Prada Marfa - Valentine, Texas
This random faux Prada shop in the middle of the Texan desert has already achieved cult status. Conceived and executed by artists Michael Elmgreen from Denmark and Ingar Dragset from Norway, the art piece was even able to enlist the support of Miuccia Prada, the brand's head designer.
At first fully stocked with genuine Prada goodies, the shop was soon vandalized, and the merchandise stolen. Now the bags on display do not have bottoms, and the shoes are reportedly all right-footed.
If you want to check out this glorious oddity, go soon: The Prada Marfa building has been constructed out of biodegradable materials, and is slowly disappearing.
Elmgreen and Dragset are well known for their architectural sculptures, including a memorial for homosexuals persecuted under Nazism in Berlin.
Angel of the North - Newcastle, UK
Britain's largest sculpture stands on a hill above a busy motorway just outside Gateshead near Newcastle in northern England. The statue was modeled after artist Antony Gormley's own body and is of astonishing scale: It stands 66 feet high with a wingspan of more than 164 feet, and was made from 220 tons of now-weathered steel.
After it was erected in 1998, locals initially had a love-hate relationship with the sculpture. But they have since embraced it, even placing a Santa hat on the sculpture's head in 2018, a prank much covered in the British news.
Gormley came to art after initially studying archaeology, anthropology and the history of art at Cambridge. It’s perhaps because of his interest in anthropology that he often depicts the human form, typically modeled on himself. He was knighted for his contributions to the arts in 2014.
Various Pieces by Gustav Vigeland - Oslo, Norway
Some 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland have found a home in the world's largest sculpture park made by a single artist, the Vigeland Sculpture Park in the Norwegian capital. The sculptures, in bronze, stone and wrought iron, show mankind in all its stages, from birth to death, through joy and tragedy. Playing children are exhibited, as are couples, warriors, old people and lovers. Some are silly, others raw. The range of emotions is vast, and each and every sculpture speaks to the onlooker.
Vigeland, born Adolf Gustav Thorsen (1869-1943), learned woodcraft from his father. Later he went to art school in Oslo and Copenhagen and spent time abroad in places such as Paris. He worked on designing the sculpture park, laying it out to be friendly to families, but didn’t live to see its completion.
Untitled (Lamp / Bear) - Doha, Qatar
A gigantic bright yellow teddy bear huddles bedside a bedside-table lamp. He looks cute and cuddly and has big black eyes. He is, however, not soft, but made from bronze. And he measures 23 feet high.
Previously displayed by Christie's in front of the Seagram building on Park Avenue in New York City, he was bought by Qatar for a reported $6.8 million to find a permanent home in the departure terminal of Hamad International Airport, where he is a welcoming sight for passengers.
Urs Fischer, a Swiss-born artist living in New York, is nothing if not prolific and eclectic. His works include photography, paintings, collages and sculptures, all seemingly made from any materials he can get hold of.
Les colonnes de Buren, Palais Royal - Paris, France
Look at most any Instagram account from Paris and you'll see images of a set of black-and-white striped columns set in a 17th-century palatial courtyard, which was once the home of Cardinal Richelieu.
In the courtyard of the Palais Royal, these 260 columns are set at different heights, some taller than the observer, others just the right size for hopping onto to snap a photo. Each column has 3.5-inch-wide vertical stripes made from black and white marble. All start in the basement of the courtyard, which was once a parking garage. (The work was actually designed to conceal ventilation shafts.)
The installation has not been universally embraced; some locals were upset by its cost (5.3 million Euros) and felt its modern aesthetic was an affront to the historic courtyard. But like all controversial works, it's also beloved by many.
Artist Daniel Buren, born in 1938 in the Paris suburbs, started off creating traditional paintings, then moved onto unsolicited art installations in the streets, before crafting architectural sculptures.
A-maze-ing Laughter - Vancouver, Canada
Beijing-based modern artist Yue Minjun is the master of the self-portrait. His paintings and sculptures exhibited around the globe picture him frozen in laughter or grinning inanely.
After working in the oil industry, Minjun joined an artists' colony outside Beijing following the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, and started to produce highly-regarded self-portraits. Basing his work on western and Chinese art, his pieces have been described by the theorist Li Xianting as “a self-ironic response to the spiritual vacuum and folly of modern-day China." But Minjun himself rejects all labels.
This particular sculpture features 14 bronze-cast men, modeled after the artist, standing 8 feet high in various poses, laughing. It was initially exhibited during the Vancouver Biennale 2009-2011, and was bought by Chip and Shannon Wilson, who donated it to the city of Vancouver to ensure the cheerful installation could remain there.
METALmorphosis - Charlotte, North Carolina
The second piece on this list by Czech-born David Cerny is a 25-foot, ever-changing silvery head sculpture in Whitehall Technology Park.
Cerny’s first permanent installation in the U.S. is made up of seven segments that regularly rotate 360 degrees, reportedly controlled via the internet by Cerny himself. The shiny, stainless-steel head is reflected in a shallow pool of water that it also spits water into.
Despite Cerny's usual love of expressing his political unhappiness and embracing controversy, this installation seems to be a straightforward feat of art embracing technology. It’s a sister piece to Kafka's rotating kinetic head in Prague, which is said to reflect Kafka's tortured personality.
Jacob's Ladder - North Island, New Zealand
This white, ethereal sculpture on top of a hill looks like a fluttering scarf in the wind. Made from hundreds of horizontal steel tubes of different lengths, it’s an illusory shape-shifter, taking on new forms depending on the angle.
The 111-foot-high sculpture boasts an ideal location within the rolling countryside of Gibb's Farm Sculpture Park, and is part of a stunning view.
The piece's creator, India-born, British-based artist Gerry Judah, is known for his set work in theater, stage and film, and has worked with well-known singers and directors in his career. His vast sculptures regularly take pole position at events like the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex, England.