Between the four speakers of Chris Watson’s “Ring Angels,” the fluttering of a thousand wings fills a corner of City Hall Park. The sound installation is based on a field recording of a murmuration of starlings, which were notoriously introduced to New York City’s Central Park in the 1890s by Shakespeare enthusiasts; they were attempting to bring all the Bard’s birds to the United States. Watson’s work is a reminder of the unnatural side of urban nature and how the sound of the birds became a sort of code for the playwright’s words. It’s one of seven artist projects dealing with codes in The Language of Things, an outdoor exhibition in Lower Manhattan by the Public Art Fund.
Curated by the organization’s associate curator, Emma Enderby, following initial development by former Public Art Fund Curator Andria Hickey, The Language of Things features sculpture, performance, and poetry alongside the sound piece. The concrete circles, dots, and dashes in Adam Pendleton’s “Untitled (Code Poem)” (2016) were inspired by Hannah Weiner’s 1968 Code Poems, which use flags, Morse code, and other patterns from the International Code of Signals to transmit verse. Some of her cryptic poems are displayed on plaques which border a garden leading to the central fountain in City Hall Park.
Compared to past shows installed in City Hall Park, the work here is more subdued. Even last year’s relatively quiet Image Objects had Hank Willis Thomas’s exuberant “Liberty” — which consists of a metallic arm supporting a basketball — while 2013’s Lightness of Being featured James Angus’s warped tractor (“John Deere Model D”) and 2012’s Common Ground was presided over by Paul McCarthy’s colossal ketchup bottle. The Language of Things mostly leaves the center of the park alone. Bigger pieces sit off to the side among the trees, like the marble rabbit ears of Claudia Comte’s “The Italian Bunnies.” Carl Bove’s and Micheal Dean’s abstractions spark a dialogue between materials, with petrified wood and steel for Bove and concrete for Dean.
An exception, in theory, is Tino Sehgal’s roaming “This You,” in which female vocalists catch the gaze of visitors and sing improvised tunes. I spent about an hour in the park on a Thursday afternoon but didn’t see any of the performers, although they’re scheduled to be there from sunrise to sunset seven days a week. (The Public Art Fund stated that due to this summer’s extreme heat, they’ve cut back on the interpreters’ hours.) According to the Public Art Fund, “This You” is “the only outdoor piece in this seminal artist’s oeuvre.”
The Language of Things is a bit cerebral for a public art exhibition (the description does begin with a Walter Benjamin quote, which inspired the title); like the four speakers pointing inward in Watson’s sound installation, it can feel somewhat insular, even for art about codes. Still, it’s interesting to see the Public Art Fund continue to challenge what public interactions with art can be, such as taking a moment out of the summer streets to be consumed in the sounds of starlings.
The Language of Things continues in City Hall Park (Broadway and Chambers Street, Lower Manhattan) through September 29.