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Sculpted Subway Scenes Elicit Chuckles, Insights From Passersby


An alligator dressed in a suit pokes his head from the sewers. He's about to devour a man with a moneybag for a head.

"Looks like he's trying to eat a man who's really greedy," says schoolboy Nathan Merkle, kneeling to stroke the bronze sculpture.

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A frowning telephone affixed to a huge steel beam sucks in, not change, but a tiny human creature. An act of revenge? wonders Peter West aloud.

"All kinds of things happen to a phone," Mr. West, a sanitation worker, muses. "People bang on them, get mad at them. I can see a phone sucking in a human being."

"Look at these little creatures! They're so funny!" exclaims Mimi Rothman, in a tone of critical authority. "I love them."

Hitherto strangers, the schoolboy, the sanitation worker, and the silver-haired urbane Manhattanite met on a recent afternoon in "Life Underground," a whimsical, provocative public art display at New York's Fifth Avenue and 60th Street, across from the posh Plaza Hotel in the shadow of Central Park.

They gawked, pondered, and analyzed together the 40 "Lilliputian" bronze creatures. They were sprinkled on and around real-life size subway beams, evoking a busy subway scene.

At first mere curious passersby, they soon became the participants in the series of open-ended stories whose plots were alien yet recognizable to them.

"It's an open story that each of us completes," says Scott Eccles, executive director of the Public Art Fund, which is sponsoring the exhibit along with New York's Department of Parks and Recreation. "Everybody would like to be a giant viewing the world from above."

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And indeed, the exhibit, slated to be installed permanently at the 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station in Manhattan, is drawing children and adults at all times of the day. And engaging them in dialogue with the art, and each other. The sculptures are meant to be talked to, stroked, even roller-bladed on, says the exhibit's creator, Tom Otterness.

Otterness said he wanted to depict life in the subway in a way that shows, among other things, the enormous distances separating people, and life's many oddities. All with a sense of humor.

Inspired by the 19th-century political cartoons that denounced corruption, Otterness sculpted knee-high bronze figures, setting them in comic poses. But he left the scenes' narratives and endings open for the visitors' imaginations to complete.

"It's only a description of what I see in New York: the constant clash between people walking on the same street, living in the same world," Otterness says. "I see small vignettes of meaning, but the connection between the events is beyond my understanding."

"I used to make work with a clear explanation to the stories," he adds, "but I found out that that's not true to life."

On a huge steel beam that serves as a backdrop for the tiny sculpted creatures, a little man clad in a top hat and tails carries a huge penny, while two policemen sweep up a pile of pennies. There's also a jaunty rat dressed as a transit cop.

Like most characters in the exhibit, the rat looks harmless. But he's chasing a man - probably a fare beater - and neither cop nor criminal seems to notice that the beam on which they walk teeters precariously, about to tip them into oblivion.

For tourist Anne Beth Payne of Geneva, Ill., the contrast between the sculpted figures' smallness and the beams' enormity carries the exhibit's most powerful message.

"The systems are bigger than the people, which probably fits Manhattan very well," she says.

"A metaphor for the society we live in," says John Kador, her husband, wryly.

Mr. Kador points to a donkey and an elephant who, perched atop a steel beam, seem too busy staring at each other to notice the tiny homeless woman curled up on a subway bench. Democrats or Republicans. Do politicians care?

While two Lilliputian workers lift a pair of beams into place, two other workers calmly saw the whole thing down.

"One block you do one thing, the other block you do something else. This is New York," remarks a thoughtful woman viewer. "You come upon it; you discover it. New York is a city of discovery."

Brad Marshal, a New Yorker from Queens who stopped to see the sculptures, finds "Life Underground" a refreshing form of public art. "Public art has become pompous, almost offensive," he says. "It's nice to see that somebody's got a sense of humor about art."

Otterness views his work in simple terms.

"The small figures make us feel enormous, and that can give you a distance on your own life," he says. "You've got a perspective on life instead of being in the midst of it."

"I think it's a way for people to enter the world."

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