On a weekday morning in summer, Times Square is usually overflowing with crowds: office workers, tourists, and the tour-bus operators, food vendors, costumed characters, and others who cater to them. But this morning, the pedestrian plaza at 43rd and Broadway is drawing even more crowds than usual, thanks to a new art installation: a set of 17 life-sized sculptures made of framed chain-link fencing, their human silhouettes outlined in soft plastic wire in neon orange. Nearness, by Cuban artist Arlés del Río, has come to Manhattan.
It’s an instant hit. The presence of the artist, Times Square officials, and members of the press can't keep the crowds from finding a silhouette to pose in and pulling out their smart phones. The work’s chain-link fencing is reminiscent of what you’d find on a school playground, and that's exactly what it looks like.
“This isn’t monumental art,” del Río explains. “It’s not just for looking. It’s art on a human level—for passing through, for participating in. It’s for the life of this area, for Times Square and all the people who pass through it. All classes of people.”
Del Río’s installation is the fifth collaboration between the Times Square Arts organization and the Cuban Artists Fund, which has brought a public artwork by a Cuban artist to the Times Square area every year since 2010. (Last year it was Esterio Segura’s Adios mi amor / Goodbye My Love.)
“We took Arlés around Times Square, looking for the right location,” said Ben Rodríguez-Cubenas of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which supports the project. “He knew he wanted the pedestrian plazas on Broadway. He came here at night, in the morning, seeing what the crowds were like. He brought different mock-ups and tested them. He was thinking of LED lights for the silhouettes, but he found that they didn’t read at all at night.” The bright orange plastic wire was a much better solution.
“And with so much of the area under construction, with barricades throughout,” added Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance, “it was a visual connection. They use the same sort of material on many of the barriers.”
Cuban Art News readers may recall del Río’s sculpture, Fly Away, which was part of the Detrás del muro (Behind the Wall) public art project along the Malecón at the 2012 Bienal. Though that work was also constructed of chain-link fencing, del Río says, the effect of that work was completely different. Fly Away was more conceptual, more dreamlike or suggestive,” he says. “It was more the idea of flight than flight itself. In Nearness, it’s more active—the movement, the paisaje, is more literal.”
In a press statement, del Río wrote that “Nearness deals with restrictions, distance, the forbidden, how what you long for can be achieved despite impediments. Persevering silhouettes going in and out trespass social, political, cultural, and personal barriers, seeking to solve an uncertainty trapped in human illusion.”
Judging from the crowds posing with the silhouettes at the debut, it’s unclear how much these meanings will resonate with visitors. Questioned about this, del Río said with a smile, “Everyone in the world won’t get it. There’ll be kids, for instance, who will just have fun passing through. That’s all part of the art, too.
“There’s no complicated meaning in my work. Art is already elitist. My goal is to make everyone a part of it. I’m trying to make art for people, not for the gallery or the museum.”
Nearness is on view through July 19 on Broadway between 43rd and 44th Streets. On July 20, it moves one block south, to Broadway between 42nd and 43rd Streets, where it remains through August 1. It moves back to Broadway between 43rd and 44th on August 2-9, and then to Duffy Square (Broadway at 46th Street) August 10-18.