Postmodern art in a public space: public interactions with ‘da Bean’

Photo 1: Cloud Gate, by Anish Kapoor is an postmodern sculpture aimed to interact with its surroundings. Source: D. Hoenderdos

Daniël Hoenderdos & Koen Brundel

“To a large extent, all work is incomplete. It’s completed by the person who is looking at it.”
Anish Kapoor (Gilfoyle 2006:143)

Public spaces are considered successful when people make use of them (Francis, 2003). This statement by itself is of course no great revelation: public space without public would simply be just space.

Identification, sense-of-place and the ability to create meaning in the outcomes of daily experiences have been shown to attract the required people (Cresswell, 2004). Urban design and public art play a significant role in achieving this.

Social and economic theory further suggests that public art supports social cohesion, boosts urban areas and makes great tools for city marketing. As a consequence of these insights, many cities have adopted new forms of public art, either as a flagship project for international profiling or, the other end of the spectrum, community-art projects focusing on engagement at the neighborhood level (Hall, 2003a,b & Remesar, 2005a as cited by Zebracki et al., 2010, pp. 787-788.).

Millennium Park in Chicago Illinois is one of those giant, multimillion flagship pieces of urban renewal, designed to include the Loop into the spaces of flows.

Map 1: The locale of Millennium Park. (Note: the North is to the right as the eastern lake board is shown at the bottom of the map.) Source: Millennium Park website.

Map 1: The locale of Millennium Park. (Note: the North is to the right as the eastern lake board is shown at the bottom of the map.)
Source: Millennium Park website.

Millennium Park is sited in the northeast corner of Chicago’s Grand Park (see map 1), originally designed by Burnham (1909) during the City Beautiful era, it received a multimillion restyling in the early 2000s.
Amongst others, sites in the Millennium Park include star architect Frank Gehry’s Jay
Pritzkers Pavillion and BP Bridge, Jaumes Plensa’s Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoors ‘Cloud Gate’ – more commonly known by the Chicago colloquialism ‘da Bean’.
Map 2: Millennium Park in more detail. Cloud Gate is located on the second plaza on the top of the map. The bottom of the map is the south east. Source: Millennium Park website.

Map 2: Millennium Park in more detail. Cloud Gate is located on the second plaza on the top of the map. The bottom of the map is the south east.
Source: Millennium Park website.

It is one of the largest sculptures in the world (10 x 20 x 13 meter weighing at 99,8 metric tons) comprising of 168 stainless steel plates polished to a degree that makes
its seams invisible in an symmetrical, amoeba-like, rounded, shape with a giant hole in the middle (see picture 1).

Anish Kapoor is very interested in nothing (Gayford, 2008). Many of his works feature omissions, “negative space, in spaces filled with a nothingness that is, paradoxically, deeply present” (Higgins, 2008).

The giant ‘bean’ that comprises Cloud Gate is no exception. It is not just that of what’s physically there – it is as much about what isn’t: without the hole in the middle, the arch would not be an arch. Due to its reflective exterior, Cloud Gate is more than the object in space as the surrounding space is tied into the sculpture. Change the locale, and you change Cloud Gate. In this manner, Cloud Gate explores universal metaphysical polarities: “being and non-being, place and non-place, tangible and intangible” (Gilfoyle 2006:261).

But the meaning which an artist’s (or planner) ascribes to an artwork and its surrounding public space doesn’t by definition need to coincide with users’ experience of the place. In urban theory Lefebrve (1991) makes a distinction between representation of space and spatial practice. Representation of space refers to the space as planned and conceived by artist and planners and spatial practice refers to the way users actually perceive the place. Urban space can fall into a conflict at this point, which raises questions regarding for whom experience and meaning are created.

“For far too long, it seems to me, since the 19th century, there’s been a loss of purpose – what is this object doing out there?”

When creating Cloud Gate, Kapoor set out to change public art from passive and still to interactive and dynamic. “Public sculpture is a problem”, he declared it was officially revealed. “For far too long, it seems to me, since the 19th century, there’s been a loss of purpose – what is this object doing out there?” (Becker, 2004)
Good question. What is this object doing out here?

Since Cloud Gate is as much about itself as its locale, asking what Cloud Gate is doing, is the same as asking what its visitors are doing. The experience of Cloud Gate differs with the weather, the time of day, the season and the behaviors of its visitors. Observing on two different days, one morning and one afternoon, both mildly sunny, show a full set of difference experiences and Cloud Gates.

This paper aims to engage in the large discourse of public art and public space by asking an ostensible simple question:

How do people interact with public art piece Cloud Gate and does it achieve its goal of interaction?


To analyze how people make use of a public space as big and popular as the Bean, a covert observation strategy (Bailey, 2006, p. 79) was chosen. We quasi-randomly selected groups of varying sizes and age/gender composition who we followed during their bean experience.

During the observation distance was kept, to not intervene with the subjects’ interaction with the artwork and each other. Observation was done in an unstructured manner (Bailey, 2006, pp. 82-84). No clear observation guide was made, because we were interested in how the interaction would unfold during the subjects stay at the Cloud Gate and had no initial expectations beyond selfies.

Nevertheless specific interest was given to the time of arrival, entrance and the point of time place people interacted with the art piece and the nature of interaction (Bailey, 2006, p. 84). Hereby we made use of behavior maps according to the example of Low (2000) for convenient and clear reporting.

Map 3: Examples of walking routes and point of interaction with the Bean  mapped out

Map 3: Examples of walking routes and point of interaction with the Bean
mapped out


In general, many people follow the same pattern. At first glance, a photograph is taken, checked if it is satisfactory, quickly shown and discussed. Then, many people come closer to the object, make another picture at medium range, often a portret or a selfie. This sequence of events takes about one minute.

Most people, whether in a group or as individuals then set out to explore the Bean from up close. Many touch its walls or make funny faces. Often, more pictures are taken which, due to the reflecting surface, result in ‘meta-selfies’: a photo of the photographer making a photo. After a while, people discuss the exterior and then set out to explore the inner arch which consumes considerable more time, most likely because of its shape which makes the visuals kaleidoscopically change.

After about fifteen tot twenty minutes, most people walk away from the Bean. These time intervals seem to take longer if the group is bigger (with the exception of classes of school children that seem to be on a schedule and all had similar stay times).

Concluding remarks

In this assignment we raised the question about how people interact with the Cloud Gate situated in de Millennium Park in Chicago. Cloud Gate is a public art piece designed specifically to interact with, as the sculpture was an reaction to the perceived passive consumption of public art.

Because of its reflective nature the experience of the sculpture depends on its surroundings. Therefore we expected every visitor to react in its own distinct way. This was what Kapoor set out to achieve (conceived space). However after observing and mapping the behavior of visitors (spatial practice) we noticed that many people follow the same pattern. By far most interaction takes place in the behavioral categories ‘gazing’ and ‘picture making’ (mostly selfies or group portraits). Both bahaviors follow similar patterns in time and space and most variance can be explained by the group size. After the exterior is explored, the hole in the middle is examined. The whole experience rarely exceeds 15-20 minutes in total.

The attractive power of the place is hardly deniable with the sheer amount of people visiting on a daily basis (actually is the second most visited place in Chicago after the Navy Pier), but the interaction with the bean seems quite homogeneous.

The Cloud Gate experience takes longer than most other pieces of public art and indeed, Cloud Gate does invoke more behavior. However, it can be argued that the repertoire of said behavior is not radically different than in less dynamic art forms. In fact, it can be argued that the nature of these behaviors has not changed from other tourist attractions which can be crossed of the list. This raises questions pertaining the nature of specific tourist behavior, and whether that can truly be influenced by flagship art. Perhaps tourists create meaning in flagship art in a way regardless of its representation. In order to bring the representation of public space and art closer to the spatial practice of public space and art, perhaps more scientific inquiry must be undertaken as to how tourists derive meaning out of the experience. An interesting question in this regard could be to ask what Cloud Gate signifies to the tourists it attracts, and whether those meanings are different from other pieces of public art.


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