: Citizens Panic! Art Eats Building on Union Square!

The Wall and I go back a while now; the relationship dates

from early March, and in New York terms it’s starting to look serious. It all

started when, in the course of my weekly lunchtime stroll to my bank on Union

Square, I noticed that the north face of the massive apartment building, record

store and movie theater development on 14th Street was exhibiting signs of

life. The dark brown brickwork appeared to be rippling out around a circular

aperture; the molding seemed to be taking over an entire wall. I dismissed it

as some kind of Yale School of Architecture statement, although the oeil-de-boeuf window didn’t make much

sense. Little did I know that this was to be Art with a $3 million capital A. I

still thought it was a building.

I went on my way, trying to remember what had once occupied

the space that now houses a new cineplex, a Virgin Megastore, a branch of

Circuit City and more rich people than I had ever thought would want to call

Union Square home. Like many New Yorkers, however, once a building’s gone, I

don’t seem to have any sense of what was there before. I can only remember it

one step back, when it was a boarded-up lot. I pondered the high circular

window: Who was going to look out of it? Who could afford to?

Things started to get a little sinister with the appearance

of a large boxed hand attached to the wall above the window. As I stood and

puzzled, I become aware of a few other onlookers doing the same thing. What

could this be? We could come to no conclusion, but had established security in

numbers.

The crated object turned

out to be a metallic hand, grasping at something or fighting its way out of the

building or, possibly, hailing a cab. The group, which had started to

reconstitute itself on a regular noontime basis, had several ideas. It could be

that the entire wall was supposed to be an upended pond surface with a drowning

giant trapped in the brick whirlpool. “Perhaps it’s a metaphor for urban

apartment life,” hazarded one woman. Then one day the line of 15 windows I had

pegged for a health club suddenly began flashing numbers, in no apparent

sequence and too quickly to be read, inducing headaches.

My pilgrimages continued. My Office Friend joined me and the

puzzlers on the southeast corner of Union Square Park. Something resembling a

hunk of granite from Central Park had been added to the lower-right section of

the wall. A dull, taxi-yellow pattern was randomly applied around the hole (no

one thought it was a window anymore). “Maybe it won’t be all that bad,” my

Office Friend said. “It’s already that bad,” one of the women remarked. “It

looks like it’s trying to say something.” But what?

Another element was added, this time a verdigris version of

either a flagpole or a leftover Nordic horn from The Vikings . My favorite opinion came from a woman who lives in the

park and quotes the Bible while pushing her possession-laden laundry cart.

“It’s a needle in the eye of God,” she shouted. “A needle in the eye of God!”

Then my Office Friend pointed triumphantly at the

scaffolding. There were the words “The Metronome” and letters that indicated a

Web site. We looked back at the needle. “Maybe it moves,” he ventured. We all

looked worried. Matters were not helped when, after several days, no one could

find the Web site. When the scaffolding came down, all references to the

Internet disappeared.

Then, on a Sunday in June, The New York Times came out with a dry, just-the-facts-ma’am

report. The next day our group met, armed with several copies of the article.

The mystery was solved-and yet the solution was more disturbing than our darkest

musings. The entire face of the building is a work of art called The Metronome . Its price tag was $3

million, paid for by Related Companies, the building’s developer, but probably

included in the price of the apartments. After all, this is the only address in

Manhattan where the art not only hangs on the outside wall, it is the outside

wall.

The hole in the wall is

a five-foot-wide circle called “the Infinity.” It is designed to emit steam as

a symbol of the city’s internal energy and of the earth itself. I see it as

something for those of us who miss the puffing Lucky Strike billboard in Times

Square. The Kong-size hand-”the Relic”-is an enlarged replica of the right hand

of the equestrian statue of George Washington in Union Square Park. To me it

still looks like a sculptural evocation of The

Texas Chain Saw Massacre .

The gold leaf applied around “the Infinity” is “the Source.”

It symbolizes the ultimate source of energy. The black-and-gold billiard

ball-shaped protrusion is a rotating sphere which will keep us up to date on

the phases of the moon (an urban necessity if ever there was one).

The needle in the eye of God is called “the Focus”; it’s a

half-inch in diameter at its top, but widens to 18 inches at its base 67 feet

below. It will produce a low tone at noon and midnight. The 15 windows will

display how many past- and pre-midnight hours exist, and are collectively

entitled “the Passage.” I liked it better when I thought it was a huge

electronic I Ching .

“Anything requiring this much exegesis can’t possibly be

good artistically,” pronounced one of the more intellectual of our group.

“Amen,” said the needle-in-the-eye-of-God lady.

The article explained that The Metronome is a joint effort by Kirsten Jones and Andrew Ginzel,

who are quoted as saying that the wall is “an ode to the impossibility of

knowing Time.” That more than one artist was involved in the Union Square

project makes sense, at least to my Office Friend.

The Metronome ,

when not flashing and belching steam and tooting, blithely incorporates the

logos for Virgin and Circuit City. They, at least, are the most comprehensible

of the components. As for the totality of The

Metronome , it will probably remain an in-joke, humorous only to the

artists, who probably laugh a whole

lot more on the way to the bank than I will. For they have obviously latched on

to an only-in-New York concept pioneered by Donald Trump: Fail so big that no

one can do anything about it. Short of demolishing the building, there seems to

be little that anyone can do. New York now has its very own Wailing Wall, a

site (and sight) of cultural pilgrimage where the death of esthetics can be

contemplated.

But perspective is everything. If you stand in the middle of

Park Avenue at 28th Street at 8:30 A.M. (and the sun is out), the gilt on the

eddying brick sparkles, and the whole thing looks like a giant golden buzz saw.

Better yet, you don’t have to understand anything. 

Up close, it’s a different story. Be advised: keep your distance. I am keeping mine.

Our group has dispersed; my Office Friend joined a yoga class.

But perhaps there is hope. At some point London’s Albert

Memorial Hall must have seemed like a good idea to someone (Queen Victoria,

probably). Widely excoriated at its unveiling, it is regarded today, with a

wary affection, as the best example of the worst of that era’s mawkishness.

Perhaps in a century The Metronome

will be celebrated as a testament to computerized America in a full millennial

lapse of all taste and reason. But perhaps not.