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Is There Room on the High Line For Monumental Art?

Starting in 2018, the elevated park’s piazza-like Plinth will host a series of large—and possibly politically charged—public art pieces.

"Untitled" by Jeremy Deller, one of several proposed art pieces for the High Line's Plinth. (High Line Art)

Late last week 12 sculptures appeared on Manhattan’s High Line, some surreal, others funny, and a few that could get the anxiety-juice flowing in your veins. There’s a voluptuous single breast, a huge chameleon zapping out its tongue, an elephant hanging upside-down from a crane, and a Predator drone casting ominous shadows on the ground.

These are actually small-scale mock-ups of what may stand in full form in the High Line’s newest addition, the Spur, when it opens in 2018. Specifically, these works will occupy a space at West 30th Street and 10th Avenue called the Plinth, which will be devoted to public art exhibits that change over 18-month periods.

It might be the High Line’s boldest creative project to date: Whereas visitors often encounter smaller works of art lurking on the sidelines of the elevated railroad-turned-park, the piazza-like Plinth will trap and hit them full in the kisser with monumentally sized—and potentially politically charged—public art creations.

Untitled (Drone), Sam Durant: America’s favorite unmanned killing machine would cast sinister shadows on the ground, as well as twirl like a wind vane. (High Line Art)

“We wanted to have a moment where art could hold the space in a quite dominant way,” says Cecilia Alemani, chief curator of High Line Art. “You have these great, breathtaking views from 10th Avenue, from the street below, and all the new buildings around it. All of a sudden, the viewer perceives the space in a different way: You look up and out, whereas with the rest of the High Line your gaze is more horizontal.”

The models, now on exhibit at West 14th Street, come from a variety of emerging and famous artists in the U.S. and abroad. There’s a guestbook where people can scribble feedback, as well as an online voting site, which High Line Art and Friends of the High Line will consult before picking the Plinth’s inaugural sculpture this summer. The High Line is also reaching out to community groups for input and possible educational activities around the sculptures—part of an ongoing effort to address concerns that the park does not serve the interests of its neighboring communities.

Bell Machine, Jonathan Berger: a music-box contraption that would hit 183 bells to play new compositions from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. Go here to listen to one of Stipe’s tunes for the artwork. (High Line Art)

The Plinth is inspired by the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, which has hosted a series of often provocative monumental public artworks since 1999. Like its U.K. inspiration, New York City’s Plinth will not shy away from charged subjects. There’s that Predator drone that, when viewed from ground level, seems to sail low between skyscrapers. Other proposed pieces include a pedestal with all 193 flags of the United Nations’ member states crowded together to suggest a single entity, and a Statue of Liberty with alternating masks representing real U.S. citizens who’ve recently gained some kind of freedom.

The Plinth’s call for art went out a while ago, so these pieces are not an explicit knock on the policies of President Donald Trump, though several do seem to reflect the long-simmering resentments that fueled his rise. “There wasn't necessarily an agenda,” says Alemani. “But I think the goal of public art is to make you aware of our surroundings, not just in terms of spacial surroundings but also community and society.” Now, with Trump in office, she adds, “some have acquired a pretty different meaning and power.”

Have a look at some more of the Plinth’s possible tenants:

Rumble, Minerva Cuevas: a metal elephant held aloft by a crane.
Ascent of a Woman, Lena Henke: a breast made of soil and sand that erodes in the rain to reveal new forms inside.
Cupboard VII, Simone Leigh: a head and apparent torso that reflects the artist’s exploration of black female subjectivity.
Tilted Tower, Charles Gaines: a tower of stacked mailboxes that appears to fall toward the James A. Farley Post Office at 30th Street and 9th Avenue.
The Island, Roman Ondak: a tight grouping of all the flags of the United Nations’ member states.
Paola Pivi, title unknown: A small Statue of Liberty whose mask would be replaced weekly with the visage of someone in the U.S. who recently gained freedom. (High Line Art)

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.