Who, or what, is a survivor?
The term recalls a popular reality franchise; Destiny’s Child’s ubiquitous hit; and the scintillating, deeply thoughtful art practice of Pamela Council.
Unveiled on Thursday, October 14, in Times Square is Council’s monumental “A Fountain for Survivors,” covered in over 365,000 acrylic nails — mostly pink. Some are overlaid on a strip of LED light that dashes across the exterior, and others are perfectly placed into decorative patterns swirling around the shell.
Eighteen-feet tall, “A Fountain for Survivors” is a magnificent protrusion in the middle of Times Square that manages to stand out despite being surrounded by billion-kilowatt billboards advertising the Jolly Green Giant, Coca-Cola, and every other brand in the American capitalist lexicon. While challenging to create an artwork that won’t disappear behind crowds in the most trafficked part of the city, Council created a haven in the heart of Midtown.
Since its unveiling, their fountain had stuck in my mind; I had to go back. Serendipitously, when I strolled up to the bulbous structure on the last night of November, my second time visiting the dreamy spacecraft, the song emanating from the cavern was Destiny’s Child’s hit “Survivor,” before it transitioned to a Mary J. Blige track.
The artwork, as noted by a friend who accompanied me on my second visit, resembles a vulva. But rather, Council says, they have invoked a carapace: the sturdy, protective exterior of turtles, crustaceans, spiders, and scorpions. In the midst of 45th Street’s chaos, “A Fountain for Survivors” wants to protect you.
“Listen to survivors’: It’s a phrase that you may hear, and it has that ring of platitudes that can easily roll off your tongue, like a token to a good citizen piggy bank,” Council told the crowd at the installation’s opening. However, they clarified, “This is a fountain for survivors. So, I want to ask anyone who sees yourself as a survivor to listen to yourself.”
“Black femmes: we survive exquisitely. I wish we didn’t get so much practice,” Council continued. But the artist’s call to fellow survivors reached far and wide, acknowledging those of us who have lived through patriarchy, mass incarceration, transphobia, racism, economic exploitation, and more.
Conceptually, the artwork rockets in the opposite direction of the standard drudgery of public monuments — bronze, monochrome statues heralding figures mostly of the past. But Council’s work operates to celebrate themself, ancestors, their peers, and you — survivors — all at once. Inside, the pastel-colored fountain bubbles, music plays, and curving walls are decorated by diffused, spray-painted pink clouds. Its gilded edges are decorated by warm lightbulbs, recalling showbiz dressing rooms; Broadway is just a few blocks away (the installation even served as a backdrop for a massive memorial for theater legend Stephen Sondheim).
At its debut, the crowd was invited to throw fizzy, Florida Water-scented wafers in the fountain. Since then, these wafers are distributed to visitors at 11:11am and 5:55pm (significant in numerology, also called “angel numbers“) to do the same. “A Fountain for Survivors” has also prompted free manicures for neighboring elders and been host to activations like a cabaret and DJ set, with more planned for the final week.
Council’s practice, by and large, is a sensorial one, with their Times Square installation building on a larger series of Fountains for Black Joy, many of which spout the infamous, indescribably-scented Pink Lotion — you either know it or you don’t. In their practice, coined “Blaxidermy” by the artist, Council deploys the scents and textures of Black self-care and/or grooming: lotions, sheens, shellac.
Black femmes’ expenditure on beauty products is more than that of any other identity group, and the artist is acutely aware of that. For the Studio Museum, they paid homage to US Olympic gold-medalist Florence Joyner, or Flo-Jo, known for her elaborate manicures. Council’s maximalist practice rejects the perception of beauty rituals as vain; they offer the potential for self-tenderness and are integral for many of us. (For the month of November, it was accompanied by a video installation surrounding Duffy Square, “Watch My Nails, Don’t Watch Me,” further adulating the sensory delights of a long-ass full set.)
For those of us who have worn acrylic nails or been cared for by those who do, nothing is more soothing than the sound of their click-clacking on a hard surface; the feeling of them scratching your arm, your back, your scalp. Council’s public artwork is a cocoon offering that same sort of comfort. It is a work of art that deserves to be celebrated.
Pamela Council’s “A Fountain for Survivors” is on view through 11:59pm on December 7, 2021, at Duffy Square (Broadway at 46th Street, Manhattan). The installation is accessible from 10am to midnight daily. It is organized by Times Square Arts.
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