Provoking feelings of awe—and awww, Ugo Rondinone's modern megaliths are among the public artworks redefining the idea of the monumental
They came at night.
Over three nights, really, and then Rockefeller Center Plaza was overtaken by an army of giants.
The massive, archaic forms, which look like they ambled across the Atlantic from Stonehenge, are the work of Ugo Rondinone, the impish Swiss artist whose last public appearance in New York was the giant “Hell, Yes” on the facade of the new New Museum.
The Rockefeller Center show, organized by Public Art Fund and Tishman Speyer with support from Nespresso, marks the return of public art to the plaza, which before the downturn in 2008 hosted works including Louise Bourgeois’s spider and a Koons flower dog.
Rondinone conceived his exhibition, called “Human Nature,” as a kind of counterpoint to The Tree, which dominates the plaza at Christmas but casts a giant shadow all year. The bluestone figures, which weigh up to 30,000 pounds each and stand up to 20 feet high, seem impervious to the Greco-Roman strongmen who usually run this part of town, like the Atlas over on Fifth, the Prometheus across the plaza, and the Deco Zeus on the 30 Rock facade, who looks as though he’s going to be stuck in the clouds for the duration of this show.
Rondinone’s modern megaliths demonstrate that even in an era of touchscreens and interactive spectacle, it’s human nature to feel awed and inspired in the presence of a giant rock.
That’s why their closest artistic relatives aren’t their classically-inspired neighbors in Midtown, but across the country at LACMA, where Michael Heizer had his Levitated Mass, a 340-ton granite megalith, transported from a quarry more than 100 miles away. Suspended over a 15-foot deep slot, the boulder is spectacular and ominous.
Yet characteristically, Rondinone instills a sweet, appealing quality in his gentle giants, who come off not so much as invaders but as sentries.
The creators of these neo-archaic forms go to great lengths to summon our ancient urges at a moment when most sculptors are doing the opposite—aspiring toward the unmonumental or de-monumentalizing the iconic structures of the past.
Writing in the Guardian last year, Jonathan Jones wondered “where did it all go wrong” for Stonehenge as he traced how artistic representations of the monument have turned from homage to parody—culminating in Sacrilege, Jeremy Deller’s “bouncy-castle” version that was a public-art highlight during London’s Olympics and is currently installed in Hong Kong. (Jones pinpoints 1984, when a mistakenly tiny Stonehenge was the subject of a hilarious plot line in This Is Spinal Tap.)
Meanwhile, back in New York, Manhattan’s most venerable skyscrapers have been shrunk, spun, twisted, and recapitulated into playful public sculptures by Alex Arrechea, whose works remain on view along Park Avenue from 53rd to 67th Street through June 9.
The fate of Latin America’s ancient monuments and deities is the theme of “Pre-Columbian Remix,” the exhibition that inaugurates the newly refurbished quarters of the Neuberger Museum of Art when it reopens April 28. Each of the artists—Enrique Chagoya, Demián Flores, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, and Nadín Ospina infuses Aztec, Mayan, or Incan art forms with pop-culture imagery, which explains how the mythic deity Xolotl ended up in the doghouse.
For some, the way out of the monumental dilemma is by letting the Pop side of the equation take over. Rondinone’s figures might find a friend in Philadelphia, where KAWS’s massive Companion (Passing Through) is playing a kind of hide-and-seek with travelers at 30th Street Station through May 14. The enormous figures provoke a similar reaction from visitors—a little bit of awe, and a little bit of awww.