After 11 years of standing sentinel in the bowels of Taipei Railway Station, the “bird girl” of Taipei last week bowed her giant beaked head in a final farewell.
The surreal statue’s departure has sparked an outpouring online as people mourn its removal, but most wonder how they are to navigate the labyrinthine station without it. Memes bandied about bid farewell to the benevolent wayfinder or show where the bird girl went next, from exile in a bamboo forest to the new Taipei Performing Arts Center building, whose spacious and equally distinctive dome is a perfect fit for her spherical yellow head.
The work, formally titled Daydream (夢遊), depicts the stark white figure of a girl with an oversized bird head, its beak and eyes protruding at slightly crazed angles. She stands atop a square of grass while gripping a pencil in her right hand, which, according to the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, often became “mysteriously broken.” Due in part to its striking appearance and prime location at the intersection of the capital’s railway and MRT lines, the statue had become a popular meeting point since its installation in 2010.
Joyce Ho (何采柔), who created the piece with fellow artist Craig Quintero, joked on Facebook about reactions to the statue, saying that she “always thought we made a sculpture, but turns out it was a road marker all along.”
Jokes aside, she said she has been grateful for the response, adding that it is “something special” when a work of art generates such a reaction.
She also made an apt call for more attention to be focused on public art in Taiwan, as conversations around the reaction to Daydream are likely reaching the ears of local leaders poised to decide on future public art pieces.
As the popularity of the “bird girl” shows, the best public art is usually not the largest or the most conventional. While some found her a little creepy, she was undeniably a locus of commonality among Taipei residents, not only eliciting a reaction, as any successful work of art should, but also lending a sense of community and shared identity, as any successful public art should.
However, conservative officials and developers often choose to adorn public spaces with inoffensively “beautiful” art, sometimes to detrimental effect. The worst offenders are the interchangeable chrome blobs or generic minimalistic figures favored especially by luxury building developers, unlikely to serve as any sort of meeting point or focus of local pride.
For its part, Taipei has been relatively successful at installing art that is at once distinctive and resonant. It has since the mid-2000s managed public art through its Public Art Fund, approving a tremendous variety of work, naturally with some hits and misses.
Some of the most popular pieces, from the zebra butt at the intersection of Civic Boulevard and Dunhua N Road — one of the capital’s oldest public art pieces, installed in 1999, titled Zebra Crossing of Time (時間斑馬線) — to Daydream and the BIGPOW robot band near Zhongshan MRT Station, lend the city a quirky atmosphere, felt by residents and visitors alike.
Apart from beautifying a place, public art can foster a shared identity and allow cities to put forward a desired image, but to do so successfully, it cannot be generic or sanitized. Good public art must evoke something that its surroundings cannot.
Those looking to commission the next beloved meeting point would do well to learn from the “bird girl” and take a chance on something innovative, even if not conventionally beautiful.
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