Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The Marriage of Money and Real Estate"

One of the great things about New York is that you've got a good chance of running into an installation of what they call "public art" almost anywhere. This one sticks up out of the East River, a few yards off the Manhattan side of Roosevent Island. It's called "The Marriage of Money and Real Estate."

I put the "public art" in quotes because I don't think there's much about art that's really public, whether the art is cloistered behind a ticket kiosk in a gallery or sitting out where anybody can inspect it for free. Why people make art, buy it, open public spaces to it, and admire it is an everlasting mystery to me, even though I'm an admirer and occasional buyer, and don't object at all to the use of my tax money on it.

Here's another example, currently on display at the southeast corner of Central Park at 5th Ave. and 60th Street.

It's an angled concrete pedestal supporting scores of semi-inflated truck tires suspended in bundles from steel armitures. The artist who dreamed this up, a German named Michael Sailstorfer, must have had a lot of skilled help figuring out how to make it happen. But now that it's there, the question for the rest of us is why.

According to a nearby sign, Sailstorfer intended his 30-foot tower of rubber and steel to evoke "a tornado, which is violently powerful but also literally made of air," and provide "a visceral experience of sculptural form and materials in tension, massive but also vulnerable."

Well, okay, if you say so. But I am sure I'm not alone in finding earnest curatorial word salads of this kind unsatisfying. They don't really explain physical manifestations of artistic vision that may be as modest as a picture on a wall but can sometimes be far bigger and more puzzling than this one.

I have heard artists say their work is an expression of things that can't be expressed any other way. Fair enough. But if we don't happen to understand that language, what motivation of our own are we responding to when we accept the presence of these things as a normal part of urban life, pause to look at them, and scratch our heads? Mere curiosity, or something deeper?

One answer artists sometimes give to questions like these is that once they're done with a work, it takes on a life of its own whose meaning lies in the perception of anyone who looks at it. That seems like nonsense to me, and I also think it sells real artists short. Works of art are deeply personal tokens of the inner lives of their creators. We can make inferences about an artist from his work, and conversely our appreciation of the work will change as we know more about the artist.

That's certainly been the experience of Tom Otterness, the guy who gave us "The Marriage of Money and Real Estate." Back in the '70s, he made a movie called "Shot Dog Film" in which he adopted a shelter dog and killed it on camera. He has since deplored and disavowed his snuff film as the product of "profound emotional turmoil and despair" in his youth. But he's been excoriated for it, and as recently as a few months ago the mayor of San Francisco wanted to rescind a transit commission Otterness had won.

 The mature Otterness is known for his cute, whimsical figures, but he's definitely a guy with a hard, sharp edge. Look here, the "marriage of money and real estate" ends badly. Money is now a murderous lobster dragging poor little real estate under, and in the third figure, which I didn't get but you can see at,
 things get even crazier.
What's this alarming three-panel strip about? Otterness wasn't just "exploring the relationship between real estate and money," as the Roosevelt Island tourist brochures palm it off. He certainly knew that anyone looking at these pieces would see them against the backdrop of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where money and real estate have been having a steamy honeymoon for more than a century.

Is this an editorial? A critique? An insult? A prophesy? Did Otterness actually see the mortgage crisis coming in 1996? Or does he think there's something fundamentally evil and deadly about New Yorkers' lust for location?

If so, who asked him?

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