Redirecting the Gaze
My first visit to New York was in 1990, a hectic day-long layover between flights. My second trip (but really the first time I began to explore the city properly) was in 1992 and a lot less frantic: five days spent, as most do, walking the city streets.
During this visit, one of my friends commented that ‘the tourist gaze is up’. What did he mean by this?
Think about moving through the streets on your way to work, or on your way to buy food for dinner. Where does your gaze direct itself? For most people, engaged in these moments of everyday passage from one space to another, the streets are something to move through while gazing either straight ahead or even downwards at the sidewalk.
Tourists, on the other hand, tend to look all around them, keen to glimpse any and all ‘attractions’ that might be nearby. They pause, they move at a slower speed, they hesitate and consult maps, often pointing their arms in the direction they are looking or in which they are about to move.
And in a city like New York, where visitors are surrounded by tall buildings, they seek to look towards the summits of those skyscrapers: hence ‘the tourist gaze is up’. And this identifying characteristic of the tourist has, by implication, a corollary: the everyday gaze is down’.
Street artists have long been aware of the downward gaze of the citizen as she moves through the commonplace activities of everyday urban life – think of Stickman’s little figures in crosswalks:
Or the stencil artists who place images and text on the sidewalk, such as these (both from San Francisco):
During my recent visit to New York, I saw two interventions in public space, neither of which might meet any strict definition of ‘street art’, but both of which manage to confound the separation between the upward tourist gaze and the downward gaze of the everyday.
The first of these is Event Horizon, a massive work by the British artist, Antony Gormley. Gormley, probably best known for his sculpture The Angel of the North in Gateshead, makes bronze casts, often of his body, and then places the resulting figures in public spaces – sometimes on a beach (as in Liverpool), sometimes in the centre of cities (as in Birmingham), and, with this work, on the tops of buildings. Instead of forging a single figure, in Event Horizon there are thirty one. Two were placed on the ground, in Madison Square Park, so that people can stand next to them, touch them, photograph them from a place of proximity:
Then, when they raise their gaze upwards to the tops of the nearby buildings, they project the heavy bronze figure from the ground upwards, onto the high perches around the park.
For the visitors, this installation fits easily into the genre of ‘cool things to see in New York’; for the locals, the statues have proved equally fascinating.
The gaze is drawn to the figures through a clever intertwining of dimensions, which gives the work tension and stops it from being yet another set of statues blandly placed in public space.
First, the figures are placed on top of buildings which reach different heights. Sometimes the figure is reasonably easy to study, such as when the building reaches to about six storeys, as in this example:
Others are positioned high above, only just visible in the vertical distance, such as this one:
The eye, then, is encouraged to travel, to meander up and down, as well as around the perimeter of the park, and to take in the variegated horizon of New York.
The second tension at work in the installation relates to the intentionality spectators project on to the figures. Why are they standing there? What are they doing? What do they represent?
The ‘figure on the roof’ is obviously one that is often depicted in film and television as someone who is about to jump – a potential suicide. And apparently the New York Police Department were briefed about the installation so that, if anyone called 911 to report someone on the rooftop, the police would be aware of the statues and their locations and would not needlessly respond to the call.
But it appears that most spectators interpreted the statues differently, as benevolent figures watching over the city and its inhabitants: guardian angels, perhaps (think of Wim Wenders’s beautiful film Wings of Desire, unforgivably remade as City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan).
But the tension between disaster and safety is nonetheless there in Event Horizon, and its certainly part of the phenomenon of looking that the spectator seeks to resolve that tension, one way or another. Perhaps it’s the sheer number of statues that helps the spectator decide they are figures of kindliness rather than despair, but perhaps it’s also part of the sheer optimism of New York City.
The other intervention in public space that redirects the everyday gaze is the High Line, a park that has been built around and on the tracks of a disused workers’ elevated railway, running north from Ganesvoort Street in the Meat Packing District.
You climb stairs from the street up to the park, above 30 feet up. Once there, you can walk its length, sit on the many benches and seats provided, and, above all, you can look at the city around and above and below. What’s amazing is the effect of a relatively small amount of elevation upon the way that one sees the city.
People in New York, as in most cities, are able to alter their perspective on the city by ascending to a higher level in order to look down – but this often involves ascending to considerable heights. Think of going up the Empire State Building (or in Melbourne, you might take the elevator to the top of the Eureka Tower; in San Francisco, tourists climb Coit Tower to see the undulating city spread before them).
It’s always interesting to do this – to look at a city from the ‘bird’s eye view’ that results. But looking down at the city from these heights comes at a price – loss of contact with the level of the street. Looking downwards from 80 floors up (or anything more than about 3 storeys, probably) detaches the spectator from any sense of connection with the ground: people look like ants, houses like boxes and so on. And these spaces also tend to provide fairly static viewing positions: one can walk around a viewing platform but it’s difficult to find ways whereby you can be raised up and move through the city at the same time.
One means would be an elevated railway, such as the one that was the High Line before it became a park. These certainly raise the individual up and move them around the city. But individuals are moved passively by the train, and their gaze will oftentimes remain inward within the train carriage rather than travelling out and around.
The High Line manages to transcend these limitations. When you visit the park, you move through it on your own two feet, an active participant in the space. The elevation of about 30 or so feet makes a surprisingly dramatic difference to one’s perspective, as you can see here:
Glass-fronted viewing platforms over the street allow the spectator the contemplate traffic (more interesting in fact than it sounds!) while suspended over the street:
Although some have been critical of the High Line’s redevelopment as a park (see, as an example, the discussion on Jeremiah\’s Vanishing New York), its impact on the citizen’s experience of the city is undeniable: lifting people up while allowing them to move or rest at will reconfigures them in public space and, as with Gormley’s Event Horizon, it promotes a new kind of relation, albeit temporarily, with the city that lies above, around and below.