Recently, a sculpture installed just outside the Shanghai Fashion Center, in Yangpu District to the north of the city center, has become an object of controversy. The dispute revolves around the content of this outdoor piece, which depicts an adult man urinating. Some parents who visited the park found the explicit nature of the sculpture vulgar and inappropriate, especially for children. Authorities responded quickly to these concerns and ordered the removal of the piece, citing safety issues.

What’s interesting about the episode is not the suitability of the piece as public art, but the context in which the discussion started. According to claims from the Shanghai Fashion Center’s representatives, the nearby Zotter Chocolate Theater imported the piece from Austria at least three years ago. So why is it only now making national headlines?

In effect, the controversy started on Weibo, a microblogging site that is one the most popular social media platforms in China. Parents took to Weibo to air their concerns, casting doubt on the artistic quality of the piece, and on its suitability as an outdoor installation. Thanks to the communicative potential of Chinese social media, the statue elicited diverse public responses a full three years after its original placement. This shows how the digital media revolution has affected how we perceive, experience, and conceptualize public places.

As argued by French philosophers Henry Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, the term “public space” does merely identify specific physical locations or a peculiar legal status. Contrary to common understanding, open access and state ownership are insufficient conditions for a space to be public. In other words, there is more to public space than matters of accessibility and ownership.

The distinctive feature of public spaces — indeed, what makes them what they are — is the fact that they are contested. They are spaces whose borders, statuses, and functions are constantly negotiated by their users. What one can do in a public space is never fixed, but always in flux. In other words, whether an activity such as playing music or dancing is acceptable within a public space cannot be determined a priori.

Instead, a heterogeneous web of users — residents, passersby, political authorities, local businesses, and so on — find themselves in a constant power struggle to determine what is acceptable and what is not. The open-ended uses and functions of public space are its most striking features and the very reason why it is key to understanding human societies and cultures, as well as their evolution.

Theorists like Rosalyn Deutsche and Hilde Hein have long understood that public art can play a relevant role in “producing” and negotiating the nature of public space, including its acceptable uses and functions. Far from being mere decoration designed to beautify our cities, public artworks are effective catalysts of public engagement and discussion. In effect, the installation of a new public artwork usually generates a response from those interested in the space that the piece occupies, fueling the conflict of interests, desires, and preferences underlying the existence of public space.

The deep link connecting space and public art only became evident to modern audiences in the early 1980s, at the time of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc.” A monumental installation in Federal Plaza in New York City, Serra’s vast wall of steel created controversy for its menacing silhouette and intrusive presence, which prevented pedestrians from taking the most direct path across the square.

The criticism led to legal action and eventually ended with the removal of “Tilted Arc” from Federal Plaza. This outcome highlighted the struggles behind the definition of public space, its possibilities and limitations. Of course, Serra’s “Tilted Arc” is just one of the many examples that revealed this aspect of public art — a set to which Shanghai’s “pissing man” statue certainly belongs.

But something more than just their respective artistic qualities separates the “pissing man” from Serra’s installation. In the internet era, what we do with our public spaces, the ways in which we think about them, and how we carry out the struggles that constantly shape their nature do not just happen in the material world. The controversy that led to the removal of the ironic piece in Shanghai started — or was at least propagated — online, showing that today’s public space depends on the interplay between material and digital realities. Public art — and therefore public space — exists in between these two realities: It is both conceptually and practically impossible to separate them.

With the emergence of social media, discussions of public art have reached a much larger audience and play a greater political role in determining the use of public space. Overseas sites like Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter, as well as Chinese equivalents like Weibo, Renren, and WeChat, are now popular repositories of photographs of public art. Public sculptures, murals, and outdoor installations may be a constant presence in users’ news feeds. For their part, artists and administrators systematically exploit the potential of communication technology to increase their outreach.

Yet these virtual platforms also offer forums of discussion where casual viewers can share their reactions, views, opinions and concerns far beyond the physical limitations of proximity that constrained informal communication prior to the advent of the internet. In the case of the “pissing man,” regular folks can air their criticisms of the sculpture’s appropriateness and be heard by millions of other virtual users.

Through these discussions, public art literally connects the digital with the physical. The viral sharing of photographs of, and comments about, public artworks in social media news feeds often engenders in users a desire to explore these spaces. Sites of photographed controversial public art become pilgrimage sites for both the art lover and the merely curious. This may very well have happened in the case of “pissing man,” which has received numerous visits since the exhibition started.

But encouraging on-site visits is just one aspect of the interdependence of the physical and virtual domains. Virtual posts about public art can not only transport us there, into the materiality of the city, but also change the physical nature of our surroundings. That is to say that the digital transubstantiation of physical urban space can have real material consequences that redescribe the nature of our squares, streets, and parks.

The byte streams of the internet create a ripple effect that transcends the boundaries of computer screens and smartphone displays, intruding on material reality like the visionary prophecy of the 1999 science fiction film “The Matrix.” As we have seen in the case of “pissing man,” what a city park looks like is now partly the outcome of virtual interactions.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.