Friday, May 6, 2011

From the Archives: Public Art Transforms a Struggling Park

In this post, BPC's archivist, Anne Kumer, shares some history on public art pieces in the park. This is the first of several posts devoted to the subject. It also appears on NYC Circa, a history blog about New York City and its public spaces.
Over the past year, Bryant Park has been the location of a few notable public art exhibits: Paul Ramirez Jonas' Key to the City, Kate Gilmore's Walk the Walk, and most recently, "Battle of the Brush." It's a long-standing tradition in the park that many present-day park visitors may not be aware of. In 1980, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, Public Art Fund, and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation collaborated to create an Artist-in-Residence program. The Artist-in-Residence program was one of several things park management did to infuse Bryant Park, then suffering from criminal activity and lack of use, with positive activity. The resulting spectacle increased pedestrian traffic and human presence in the park, and discouraged negative activity, such as drug use, and vandalism.
Artists assembled their pieces on-site, where visitors were able to watch, ask questions, and in some cases, lend a hand with the installations. Exploring the theme of metamorphosis, visual conceptual artist Mel Chin, constructed his piece "MYRRHA P.I.A. (Post Industrial Age)" in the park, during the summer and fall of 1984.

Chin used  nineteenth century fabrication techniques to create a three-dimensional figurative sculpture of a female set on a wood pedestal, and placed in the center of the lawn.

The statue's two outer "skin" layers made of perforated steel, encased a skeleton made of polystyrene.

The piece was 30 feet tall, 6 feet deep, and 16 feet wide. "MYRRHA P.I.A." was completed, and unveiled on January 17,1985. It stood in the park until May 30 of that same year. 

In addition to Industrial Age fabrication techniques, Chin drew from  a nineteenth century engraving by French illustrator Gustav Doré. Chin's Myrrha is heavily based on Doré's engraving of Dante's portrayal of Myrrha in Divine Comedy. In Greek mythology, Myrrha disguised herself as someone else, tricked her father into an incestuous affair, as punishment was transformed into a tree, and, still as a tree, bore a son, Adonis. Doré's engraving shows Virgil leading Dante on a tour of the underworld, through the Eighth circle of hell, where Myrrha and other "falsifiers of others' persons" reside. For more on Dante, visit Danteworlds, an "integrated multimedia journey" through Dante's Divine Comedy.

Mel Chin continues to work and exhibit internationally.To see more of his work, click here, here, and here.

To learn more about Public Art projects in and around the city, visit the Public Art Fund, MAS NYC, and Creative Time. For more information of current public art exhibitions in New York City parks, click here.

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