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Manhattan mythology

Gary Shteyngart’s vision of a dystopian America rendered insignificant on the world stage by Chinese domination may not be such a far-fetched reality for some. If that rather terrifying scenario does come to pass, let’s hope public art is not callously bulldozed in the process. Throughout the spring and summer, New York’s parks and museum gardens have some very arresting sculptures on display. In the Scuplture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Midtown Manhattan, for instance, is German artist Katharina Fritsch’s installation, Figurengruppe/ Group of Figures. It consists of nine life-sized sculptures depicting various figures, among them St Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, a giant and a snake, bathed in bold colours. It’s not an easy work to ignore; the massive scale and bright hues both attract and intimidate the viewer. Ultimately, it demands a kind of reflection, if not outright confrontation on the role of religion, mythology and superstition in modern society. Downtown, at Madison Square Park, a graceful, if gigantesque, sculpture of a white head is planted on the grass, amid the dogwood.  Made of fibreglass resin, “Echo”, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, stands 44-feet tall, and is modelled after the Greek nymph, Echo.  Eyes closed, she wears a dreamy, serene expression on her face. The effect is hypnotic, intriguing, yet somehow soothing, the perfect antidote on a scorching summer’s day to the city’s usual bustle. Controversial Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, on the other hand, eschews Western symbolism altogether and focuses on Oriental astrology with “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads”, his first major public installation in the US.  The monumental piece debuted last May in Central Park’s Grand Army Plaza, in front of the Plaza Hotel. The twelve bronze animal heads, each one weighing approximately 800 pounds and representing each sign of the Chinese Zodiac, are positioned on bronze bases. According to ARTINFO, they also represent a contemporary reinterpretation of “a fountain clock designed by two European Jesuits at the behest of Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Located at the Old Summer Palace just outside Beijing, the piece featured the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, each spouting water at two-hour intervals.” When the Summer Palace was ransacked by French and British troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, the animal heads were looted. Today, only seven heads have been recovered – the rat, rabbit, ox, tiger, horse, monkey and boar – while the other five remain missing.   MoMA 11 West 53rd Street New York, NY 10019   Madison Square Park 10 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10010   Grand Army Plaza Central Park Fifth Avenue between 58th and 60th Streets New York, NY 10022   Text:Bambina Olivares Wise