When an artist displays a work of art in a public place such as Battery Park City, he or she must take into consideration the degree of interaction that may take place between the public and their work of art. When I spoke with the artist of The Upper Room, Ned Smyth, he explained his intention of the publics’ interaction with his sculpture was to be both physical and emotional. In this paper, I will discuss the different issues that have made his intent a success.
First, I will address the impact that the physical appearance of the work has on the public, and why. The Upper Room is constructed from concrete with inlayed stone and glass mosaic. It is a large-scale sculpture, yet it is very welcoming to the eye of the public and not overpowering. The sense of feeling invited into the piece comes partly from the pastel pink color of the concrete and the mystery of the mosaic pattern that is inlayed into it. The artist’s dynamic use of space also creates an inviting aura. There are steps leading up to a colonnade, which is not attached to an actual building. This is unusual when studying the history of architecture. The entire room was created by a series of surrounding columns, none of which are attached to any sort of wall or ceiling. The artist explained to me that he wanted to create an interior "room" as a part of the exterior environment he was given to display his work in. He wanted to create a space, rather then to create an object. He chose not to have an enclosed area, because that would make the work separate from the environment and the people in that environment as well.
The space in which The Upper Room is displayed is an important issue when discussing the physical and emotional interactions of the public. The sculpture is located in Battery Park City, at the end of Albany Street at the Esplanade. As people walk along the path, they can visually see the sculpture, which is off to the side. It is not placed in an area of direct, high foot-traffic; hence people are not forced to walk through the sculpture. The interaction of the public with the piece is by choice, and is private in a sense. People become physically interacted with the piece, because it offers a place to sit and rest, eat, meet with friends, or simply to enjoy the view of the water.
Other works of art in Battery Park City offer public interaction, such as Scott Burtons’ Sculptural furniture. This is also a functional piece of sculpture made up of tables and chairs, and long benches. The difference in these two works, is that the Sculptural Furniture is not enclosed in a room like structure. Another piece of public art in Battery Park City is the Police Memorial by, Stewart B.Crawford. This piece does not function in the same way as furniture, rather it functions as an emotional stimulant. Also, This sculpture is much more private then the other two that I have mentioned. It is located in a corner and is only accessible by stepping down into the enclosed space it occupies.
The Upper Room is located amongst residential and corporate buildings. With this in mind, the artist said that he wanted to alter the environment of the city by creating a unique area for the public to escape to. He expressed that he wanted this work to be an alternative and fanciful piece of Art amongst the massive quantity of architecture in New York City. When I viewed the sculpture, there were people escaping from every day life by sitting on the stools reading the newspaper, and talking with friends. There were also children using their imagination by pretending they were in an enchanted castle. The artist told me that when the sculpture was first put up in 1987, there were complaints from people living in the apartments close by. They complained that large groups of people (including Hells Angels) were having loud parties late at night inside The Upper Room. Here we can see the positive and negative effects that were created due to the surrounding space of the sculpture.
The Upper Room was created with the intent of evoking a set of shared values of the public. The artist wanted to create a place for people to come together. He made stools with a long table that has six chessboards (inlayed with stone) on top, as a place for people to commune and interact with one another over a common activity. The space was created for a pubic meeting area as well. This is another way that the artist aimed at gaining the physical and emotional interactions of the public.
The actual structure of The Upper Room has a sense of many different styles of architecture. It appears to have Gothic, Roman, Egyptian, Islamic, and, Medieval influences all combined to form a unique conglomerate of architecture. People of many different cultures can relate to the different types of architecture, which are noticeably present in this sculpture. Bringing together different cultures and styles into one work of art is a reflection of American society. The relatively, diverse group of people who come into with The Upper Room are all connected, in a sense, by the work of art. There are many differences in culture between the people of America, and the people of other areas of the world such as Europe. The artist explained that Americans are very fast paced and do not take the time to relax, as do people in other countries. With this in mind, this sculpture was created as a way to bring leisure and relaxation into a busy schedule. It was created as a way for the public to escape from the "hustle and bustle" of city life. The artist focused on making this "room" a whimsical and enjoyable place for the entire community to share.
The Upper Room also embodies religious influences, which are not so direct as the historic architectural influences. A church or temple, are both areas of worship and respect. The artist said that he added symbols of religious meaning to the work to evoke shared values of the public. Rather then using traditional symbols of religion, he chose a tree. There are two palm trees in the "room" they function as symbols of personal growth. These two parts of the sculpture are the most decorative, and are the two areas which I personally spent the most time examining. The colors are brighter and the design is more elaborate in these two specific areas. There is so much going on decoratively in these two symbolic trees that stimulated me emotionally.
Other religious symbols were taken into account when creating the sculpture. The number of stools around the table with chess boards is twelve, relating to the twelve apostles. Also, the long table is meant to symbolize an alter. Lastly, the artist said he raised the structure and added a base with steps, as most places of worship also have, as a way to symbolize being closer to God. All of these symbols of religion have personal meaning to the artist, but are also incorporated into the piece to have an emotional impact on the viewer.
The different ways in which people interact with this piece of work, from my experiences, are what the artist intended upon. The artist carefully chose to make a work of art that people can interact with, a work that functions in multiple ways. As I have discussed, people in the public interact both physically and emotionally with The Upper Room. The form, surrounding space, evocation of shared values’, and historical and religious influences all play a role in helping the sculpture to be functional and create public interaction and community.
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