Hubert Burda Media

The world’s best outdoor art installations

Once the domain of galleries and museums, art installations are now set on the grounds of heritage sites, hotels and public gardens.

It used to be that if you wanted to see art installations, you went to a gallery or, more typically, a museum. Eventually, the pieces became so huge — say hello to Henry Moore, Richard Serra and Fernando Botero — they had to be moved outdoors where they took up a limited residence in the museum’s courtyard, or like Daniel Buren’s black and white columns in the Palais Royal in Paris, became permanent fixtures.

In recent years, however, some of the world’s great parks, heritage gardens and country manors have encroached on the museums’ turf, and begun directly commissioning sculptors and artists to create large-scale works for their grounds. In 2010, for instance, Anish Kapoor memorably sprinkled his silvery globes, globules and mirrored concave dishes around London’s Kensington Garden. Visitors were agog and bemused in equal measure by these strange, out-of-context conceits, their almost alien silhouettes against the natural green expanses whisking you away into a parallel dimension.

Equally unforgettable was the autumn of 2013 when Chatsworth House, the ancient ducal seat of the Devonshires in England’s Peak District, invited 20 international artists — among them Jaume Plensa, Manolo Valdés, Mario Merz, Juan Muñoz, Marc Quinn, Tony Cragg and Thomas Heatherwick — to install monumental sculptures of bronze and stone, fibreglass, aluminium, steel and acrylic in its legendary gardens.

Then, there was last year’s commission by the Palace of Versailles to Olafur Eliasson, part of the coveted annual invitation to a contemporary artist to put his spin on the 17th-century architectural masterpiece. While the Danish artist worked his signature magic with mirrors and visual sleight of hand through a series of unforgettable site-specific installations within the glittering excess of the palace itself, he kept his strongest statement for the fabled garden. On the edge of the Grand Canal, he raised a towering L-shaped platform from to send a torrential waterfall gushing as if from a crack in the sky. By any yardstick, it was a certified crowd-pleaser, for a brief moment becoming one of the most Instagrammed images in Paris that season.

But beyond the sheer spectacle of these installations, a more prosaic (read: commercial) purpose is at work. Heritage sites such as Versailles and Chatsworth will always draw a reliable following, especially among the blue-rinse set, but how do you engage the younger generation, much less one that prefers to explore the world through the lens of social media, and physically lure them onto the grounds?

For Jam Acuzar, founder and director of the Philippines-based non-profit arts foundation, Bellas Artes Projects, art interventions into heritage spaces can be a great way to attract and encourage visitors to return. “Having artists respond to the space creates new stories and therefore new works of art to be displayed for a certain amount of time,” she says. The most perfect example is the audience for the Venice Biennale, she adds. They reconvene every two years to admire the pavilions and new exhibitions, in the same way they have stayed in the same hotels, eaten in the same restaurants, and gone to the same parties. “If the biennale didn’t exist, perhaps not so many people will keep going back every two years.”

Cor-Ten steel sculptures by Bernar Vernet in Cliveden’s renowned Regency gardens

This past May to October, the legendary conceptual artist Bernar Venet arrived at Cliveden — the Astors’ impressive private estate-turned-hotel just outside London, and incendiary spark for the infamous Profumo affair — with 10 large-scale sculptures, some reaching up to 9m, which he littered around the historic Grade I-listed gardens.

For guests of the hotel and day trippers to the public gardens, these installations added a dimension to a place already so imbued with historical significance. As Polly Ingham-Watts, Cliveden’s Visitor Experience Manager, freely admits, “We were, of course, looking to attract new visitors who are fans of contemporary art, or even potential fans of sculptural work.”

Up-close, Venet’s enormous slashes of rust-red Cor-Ten steel made for looming expressions of arcs, tumbled lines, endless loops, and rearing parabolas. But seen from a distance — against the sprawling green lawn, peeking from beneath a thicket of oak and plane trees — they felt strangely organic, as if pushed out of the landscape, like natural outgrowths whose colours shifted like an autumnal tableau, from rust to dark brown to vivid red, depending on the light.

For his part, Venet was completely enthused about integrating his pieces into the English countryside, proclaiming they had found their place there. He, too, was well aware of the bigger picture they represented. “From a broader perspective, the wealth of sculptural propositions that have appeared over the past 20 years in historic properties and public spaces poses interesting questions about nature and the future of sculpture.”

Halfway across the world, Bellas Artes Projects — which Acuzar set up in 2013 and runs from her father’s Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar resort in Bagac — attempts to answer some of those questions as it assembles one of Southeast Asia’s most ambitious collections of commissioned artwork to be installed on-site and around the district.

Concrete chapel by Not Vital in Bataan, the Philippines

In March, she worked with Swiss artist Not Vital to create a surreal, permanent concrete chapel near the foundation’s headquarters. Set high on a bluff, and accessible only through a wild forest and rough roads, the collaboration was part of a programme by Bellas Artes Projects to provide global contemporary artists a space to experiment and to work with Filipino artisans and craftsmen. “It was done largely through residencies on our campus at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar,” Acuzar says. “Our goal is to encourage artists to produce their ‘dream projects’ by collaborating with our craftsmen and responding to the environment or context around them.”

As Venet would have recognised, having Bellas Artes Projects, its studios and workshops on the grounds of a popular resort establishes an immediate connection between artists and guests. A highlight of this year’s artistic programme, for instance, was Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s Cagayan Garden installation. Using discarded materials from the foundation’s workshops and construction sites, this garden allowed one to meditate on themes of migration and displacement — particularly apt given the foundation is located not far from the starting point of the notorious 1942 Bataan Death March.

Of course, context is important. On the physical level, it’s one thing to conceive an abstract, 9-foot-tall Cor-Ten steel ring, but quite another to locate it in a way that makes sense. Of his Cliveden pieces, Venet says, “It was important to place the works close to paths, so visitors can experience the relationship between their own bodies and the sculpture’s physicality.”

On the intellectual and emotional levels, these collaborations between artists and the curators of large-scale grounds serve to spark a conversation about art, particularly among people who might not, otherwise, have made the effort to see these works. Case in point: The annual Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Garden, where an architect with no built project in UK is invited to create what is essentially a folly, which will be dismantled at summer’s end. Each year, the event attracts tens of thousands of both design aficionados and curious visitors alike.

On this point, Acuzar notes: “When the articles about Not Vital’s chapel came out, we received so many inquiries from millennial and non-millennials alike, as it sparked so much curiosity. There is an audience that wants to discover something unique and magical. Art tells a different story.”

If the recent al fresco outings by artists like Kapoor, Venet and others are any indication, art tells a story that’s not only different but also worth seeing.