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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Made for TV at Rockefeller Center

From the Floor got a reminder yesterday of its place in the media food chain.

On my way past Rockefeller Center, I stopped to see Jonathan Borofsky’s new installation Walking to the Sky. After a few minutes, I noticed that Borofsky was standing nearby. I asked if I could get a picture of him with the work. His response was friendly enough but clear. “I’d rather not. I have a TV interview in ten minutes. You can snap away, but I don’t want to pose right now.”

It’s fitting that Borofsky was more interested in talking about his work with the Today show than with me. The piece is custom made for a daytime TV audience.

Walking to the Sky is a 100-foot-tall, stainless steel pole mounted on the plaza at Rockefeller Center. Seven human figures walk up the pole while three more stand at its base looking on. The slick, color brochure available near the work describes it this way:
Walking to the Sky is inspired by a story Borofsky’s father used to tell him as
a child, about a friendly giant who lived in the sky. In each tale, father and
son would travel up to the sky to talk with the giant about what should be done
for everyone back on earth. The sculpture is, the artist says, a “celebration of
the human potential for discovering who we are and where we need to go.”
The piece brings to mind Frank Stella’s famous saying, “What you see is what you see,” but in a much different way. With Stella’s pinstripe paintings the point was that there wasn’t anything else there. They were what they were, and that was something new. But with Walking to the Sky there just isn’t anything else there. Period.

That’s what makes it the perfect made-for-TV art project. It’s easy to look at, entertaining, serious but not deep, affirmative and uplifting (“It’s for all humanity, not just New York,” I overheard Borofsky say), and nostalgic. It’s also single-dimensional, can be fully explained in a sound bite, contains no ambiguity, and wants to please. It’s lowest-common-denominator art. Muzak for the eye.

But for being such a mediocre piece, it’s being fabulously managed. While getting my hair cut last weekend, I was talking with my stylist about another client of hers who is an emerging pop star. “She’s doing really well,” Uliana said. “In that business, you know, you just need to be good enough. But you have to have a great publicist, and she’s got the best.”

Borofsky has the best too. Every autumn since 2000 Tishman Speyer Properties (the owners of Rockefeller Center) and the Public Art Fund have commissioned a site-specific installation for this location. Then they market the hell out of it—special lighting, brochures, signage, media, the whole thing. They estimate that 250,000 people will see the work every day. And the sponsors want all of them to understand what’s going on.

By October 18, when the piece comes down, a few million people will have been educated to associate the site with the owner with the artist with the work. It’s real art (see the signs and brochures that say it is?), art means class, Rockefeller Center means class, Tishman Speyer buildings are classy.

When public art projects are at their best, they engage viewers who ordinarily don’t look at art. The work encourages viewers to interact with it. It sparks viewers to ask themselves new questions or to look at the world in a different way. Creative Time’s Freedom of Expression National Monument on display downtown right now does this.

Walking to the Sky doesn’t. Viewers who see it will smile and say “isn’t that nice” or “isn’t that neat.” They’ll then change the channel and move on, looking for another novelty to hold their attention for a span of two, three, or four minutes before they click on to the next thing and the next and the next.

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