Continuing the long human tradition of rock stacking, Ugo Rondinone’s contemporary art cairns are now looming around Rockefeller Plaza, casting their colossal shadows beneath Art Deco towers in an attempt to bring some ancient mystery to the busy summer streets.
Installed as one of the Public Art Fund’s projects, Rondinone’s Human Nature has nine formidable figures standing between 16 and 20 feet tall in the well-traveled plaza space overlooking where the ice rink draws circles of skaters in winter. However, while each weighs around an astounding 30,000 pounds and is formed from roughly quarried bluestone, they are still dwarfed by their surroundings, like invading ancient, bewildered behemoths that have suddenly found themselves diminished by the modern climb of architecture.
Like much of the work by the New York-based Swiss artist, Human Nature is a little silly. Rondinone has a thing for gentle giants, having exhibited nine-foot-tall heads with grinning faces in his 2007 Big Mind Sky exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery and jubilant casts of olive trees that sprouted at the IBM Building on Madison Avenue back in 2011, although he’s probably best known for his whimsical “Hell, Yes!” sign that has sadly departed the façade of the New Museum after its 2007-10 installation.
The Human Nature sculptures appear to be a take on the human-shaped inuksuk stone structures built by native peoples in the Arctic as navigational landmarks, and appropriately it seemed, at least during my visit, as if the guards in the installation area were asked for directions every few minutes by a wandering tourist.
Rondinone also has an exhibition opening up May 11 at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea that will concentrate on his bluestone sculptures, and it will be worth seeing whether the goliaths have more of an impact in a tighter gallery space. Yet while you aren’t likely to suddenly be struck by some sort of call from an ancient mythical past of titanic stone deities, there is an interesting echo between Human Nature and Josep Maria Sert’s 1937 American Progress mural just inside 30 Rockefeller Center, facing out to the temporary rock invaders.
The mural by the Catalan artist was designed to be a depiction of the construction of the modern United States, and it includes workers carving massive sculptures of monolithic men. In both is something of the human ambition, or nature if you will, to construct these leviathan inflations of our own forms as an embodiment of our progress as a people. And while that may be much, much stronger in the mural, there is a nice circular dialogue between the ancient tradition of these stone beings revived and refracted in a mid-century mirror just beyond the revolving doors behind them.
Ugo Rondinone: Human Nature is installed in Rockefeller Plaza between 48th and 50th streets through June 7.