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The Perils of Public Art
Ann Messner Interviewed by Gregory Williams
Ann Messner's Amniotic Sea was installed temporarily at Foley Square in lower Manhattan from January 15 to May 1, 1998. The following is a discussion with the artist concerning the process involved in creating a piece of public art. Gregory Williams was formerly associate director of Apex Art Curatorial Program in New York.
Where did Amniotic Sea originate and how did it end up in downtown Manhattan?
I had been asked to participate in the Public Art Biennial at the Neuberger Museum of Art [at Purchase College, SUNY]. I proceeded to work on the piece and in so doing reconsidered my ongoing interest in the distinction between public and private with the intention of re-siting the work after the biennial. I understood it as a portable piece that would engage differently in a place that had a more public identity.
Had you picked Foley Square as the second location before you made it?
I made the piece considering it as an opportunity to do another outdoor work that would be defined as public, meaning that it would contain ideas of "publicness." I just started re-thinking, re-evaluating how I felt about the notion of a work in public. I had always defined the parameters of such an experience by choosing sites that were heavily populated, congested, and very urban. I suppose I was attracted to the extremeness of these places. Places you wouldn't expect to see a work of art, places where there is no extra space for what would be the usual consideration of art as a leisure experience. The work would be somehow forced to integrate into the situation along with everything else.
Foley Square is so intimately attached to major public buildings, major government buildings. There is a long history of sculptures being put into open public spaces, so that the sculpture forms a very clear relationship with the building. It seems that yours was set at a certain remove, as opposed to, say, putting it right in front of a building in a plaza. I'm thinking of sculptures that were produced in the 60s and 70s. Are you trying to remove your work from that kind of context? [End Page 36]
That has not interested me. My history of public work has been in direct relationship to the pedestrian, to urban energy on the street level. I have seen my work more in relationship to the people who use the city as opposed to the architecture. Historically, sculpture has been directed towards architecture, often literally so, and subsequently scaled so. But my interest has always been more on the level of the viewer. It's really about the people, not so much about the architecture, but then of course in New York everything is in relationship to the architecture. I had initially proposed to site it on the traffic triangle that was directly in front of the Supreme Court Building. I thought of it as a place set apart for the sculpture. Traffic triangles control traffic, they keep the cars where they're supposed to be, but in the meantime there's this dead area defined by its function and yet it is awkward and unused, a filler. A space that people only visit in passing. You're never going to the triangle because that's the destination. You're going to the triangle because you're going to cross over to the other side.
That has always been of particular interest to me conceptually, poetically: space defined as transitory, temporary and set apart. I think that there's a certain sense of humor in which I proceed with my work. I have a conceptual basis. I have it all worked out rationally but then I have to go look for the situation to concretize or complete the model. I had the sculpture, I knew what it was...