In a Grain of Sand – Adding Aesthetic to “Airport”

Dahlia Rizk

“All passengers, please look to the end of the terminal for our latest exhibition on French Impressionists.”

Until I could imagine announcements like this taking place over the loudspeaker, I didn’t find the airport to be a particularly friendly place. The loud phones start giving you a headache after an hour or two, and, even with three hours until my next flight, I feel the frenzy as everyone around me rushes to their gate to catch a flight. The other passengers who aren’t late for a flight walk around like zombies while stewardesses who haven’t seen a real bed in days dab on yet another layer of foundation in those cold steel bathrooms.

But then airports started changing. Entrepreneurs thought after so many hours of airplane food, these people must be starving. Let’s give them restaurants, and bars, and coffee shops. Even Haagen Daas.

Then came the stores. It started with newsstands and bookstores, but clothing stores, makeup stores, music stores, even liquor stores, all came to being in the airport. Now, many airports across the world are seeing yet another addition: art. After the dining and the shopping, what better to do than stroll around the (free) exhibitions in the airport?

I first noticed this a few years ago in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, which features a now-permanent extension of the Rijksmuseum. I had never been to the actual museum and so was delighted to stumble upon it and find that many of their important Rembrandt pieces were featured here.

Other airports are catching on to this great idea. Pisa’s Galileo International has now been virtually turned into a Nall installation. (Nall Hollis is an American artist influenced by the work of Salvador Dali.) Bronze sculptures, mosaics, and other works fill the terminals.

Exhibitions on the natural world or historical allegories can also be found, such as those in San Francisco International. “Under Water Planet” shows exotic fish in their natural environments and “Human Textiles” displays articles made by highland peoples of Southeast Asia. Jackson Airport in Atlanta has as one of its most popular exhibits, a series of large stone sculptures from Zimbabwe that demonstrate family and spiritual values.

Surely, there are frustrations on behalf of “airport curators” planning these exhibitions. The average traveler isn’t always looking for an aesthetic experience and you’d have to wonder how many people really do stop and take a look.

But in a sense, much of the excitement of airport art is that it’s there in the first place. Perhaps the sheer surprise of it all is enough to pique anyone’s curiosity. There’s no commitment, usually no fees. Even the caffeine-run workaholics clinging to their laptops would end up asking, well, why not? And while the airport will never replace the real museum experience, it still helps to put the art back in airport.