Common Ground at City Hall Park, the newest exhibit from the Public Art Fund, has artists realizing public monuments as acts of memorial and common experience, as well as shared moments of public art whimsy. Contributing sculptures, installations and performances are Elmgreen & Dragset, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Roger Hiorns, Jenny Holzer, Matthew Day Jackson, Christian Jankowski, Justin Matherly, Paul McCarthy, Amalia Pica and Thomas Schütte.
While there are plenty of tonal shifts, from the unmissable 30-foot-tall inflatable “Daddies Ketchup” by Paul McCarthy, to a concrete appropriation of a detail of the classical sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons” by Justin Matherly, there is a consistent adherence to the exhibit’s goal of reinventing the civic monument “through the use of abstraction, irony, and satire.”
I visited Common Ground over the sunny Memorial Day weekend, when there were plenty of wanderers interacting with the exhibit. While the giant ketchup bottle is impossible to ignore and will likely draw many passing visitors into City Hall Park, the most successful art in terms of playing off New York’s existing civic monuments and history are more subtle, and could even be missed as temporary art installations if not for the bright blue exhibition text. Christian Jankowski’s “Common Ground,” an engraved stone nestled in the disturbed dirt below a tree, is a monument to the (living) artist’s desire to be buried in the park. It is almost indistinguishable from the many memorial plaques that are strewn in shady spaces of the city’s parks, and also reminded me of the public parks in New York City that did actually used to be burial grounds, including Washington Square Park and Bryant Park.
Jenny Holzer’s four benches are also beautiful takes on memorial monuments, with two “Truisms” pieces carved from Danby Royal Marble and two “Memorial Benches” made from Indiana Buff Sandstone, all engraved with Holzer’s cutting text. The “Trusms” benches have profound and somewhat didactic pronouncements like “Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid,” while the “Memorial Benches” are more lyrical, with one beginning: “Eye cut by flying glass/The child walks on a broken leg/Bone visible through the forehead…”
Another interesting approach to civic memorial sculpture is Thomas Schütte’s “Memorial for Unknown Artist,” a bronze upper torso of a man with raised arms, which he originally made for an exhibit inspired by the forgotten Swiss modernist Robert Walser. While the figure doesn’t look much like Walser, it does look like the mythic version of what an artist or writer is imagined to be: a long beard stretching down from a solemn face with a brow creased in thought. The bronze is worn down as if from the urban elements, giving it the same washed out surface as the old memorial sculptures one would find in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, erected at a time before Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum when most notable sculptors’ had their most accessible work in graveyards.
Luckily for an outdoor exhibit opening in early summer, Common Ground is not all heavy memorials and there are several works that bring some lighthearted interaction, including Amalia Pica’s “Now, Speak!,” where people can climb up on the giant concrete lectern. Bloomberg unfortunately did not use it during the opening reception of Common Ground, but visitors can make their own broad statements and proclamations, although during my visit is was just being used as a photo opp for passing tourists. It does have a dark edge, as Pica grew up in Argentina during its politically tumultuous time, when speaking out in public could have resulted in serious, even fatal, consequences.
In addition to the spontaneous performances that may come from Amalia Pica’s work are two planned performance pieces, with one being Elmgreen & Dragset’s “It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry,” which has an aluminum megaphone inside a glass case by the City Hall Park fountain. At some point during every day of an exhibit, someone will come and “activate” the art “according to the unpublished instructions of the artists.” It was not activated during my hour in the park, but I can imagine that it involves some yelling, and probably a dose of Elmgreen & Dragset’s characteristic humor. It would be great if it also somehow involved Pica’s concrete lectern, as the works in Common Ground are definitely each on their own island, with little dialogue due to their spacing in the park (it’s rare to see one from the other, except the 30-foot-tall ketchup bottle), and distinct artistic approaches.
The other performance work is Roger Hiorns’ “Untitled (choir),” which includes participants from NYC youth choirs singing sections from the classical choral canon — often on their backs. A performance schedule has not been released, but the spontaneity is in line with stumbling upon the public art always found around the city, and it will hopefully create an unusually touching visit to City Hall Park for some visitors.
Many civic monuments become arcane relics, as anyone who has walked around Central Park knows when trying to decipher who the statues from yeseteryear which were commemorated years ago by immigrant associations or other lost societies. The late Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculptural installation has slabs of stone engraved with Latin text derived from words associated to the French Revolution leader Louis Saint-Just: “The present order is the disorder of the future.” It references both the monuments of Rome and Greece that are now ruins to be deciphered, and also how a monument created with a decided purpose can in the future be a meaningless monolith.
As an exhibit, Common Ground is mostly quiet and unobtrusive, like the monuments that can be found throughout the city, from the statue of Irving T. Bush at the Bush Terminal in Sunset Park, to the small white lighthouse memorial to the Titanic in the South Street Seaport that most take for nautical ornamentation. Although these sculptures of the once revered and forgotten memorials are consigned to history instead of common thought, there can be rewards from stopping to engage for a moment with the reasons that so much metal and stone was once committed to their purpose.
Common Ground shows through November 20 in City Hall Park (Between Broadway, Park Row and Chambers streets, Lower Manhattan).