Kiki Smith in Times Square Again

By some confluence of chance and irony, and something other than coincidence, Kiki Smith was asked earlier this year to produce a temporary installation in Times Square as part of the Last Lot project space—roughly five blocks from the 1980 staging of “The Times Square Show” by Colab, an aggressively experimental artist group of which Smith was an active member.

Times Square today is no longer what Jeffrey Deitch called “New York’s behavioral sink, the place where people go to do all the things that they can’t do at home,” in his review of the “The Times Square Show.” [1] Today’s Times Square is perhaps still a behavioral sink, but one with a steady international eye trained upon its few square blocks, and is certainly not a place without a code of manners determined by external (touristic, perhaps) forces. It has ceased to have a specificity that ties it to a local New York-ness, and certainly ceased to allow unsanctioned avant-garde actions (in this past month, the ever-present police shot and killed a man in the vicinity, who menacingly wielded an 11-inch knife and refused to back down—an unfortunate tale, but one that demonstrates the rarity of organic unusualness).

The Last Lot project is a child of the Times Square Alliance’s public art program that, in its own words, “works to bring cutting-edge art to Times Square” via commissions made possible by large and generous donors (a list which includes UBS and the like). [2] Though it may not be certain that this banner has the self-awareness of the 25 years prior—a mark of success of the eradicating of urban and social unsavoriness under our two most recent mayors—it functions brilliantly as a litmus of the changing regard of art in Times Square and perhaps New York at large.

Smith’s installation, “Chorus,” features a constellation of stained-glass stars stood upright in an empty lot on the corner of 46th Street and 8th Avenue, amidst which stands a glittering Josephine Baker. Baker has equal fame for her Prohibition-era performances as her support of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1920s, and her muse-like effect on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. The choice of subject, a nationally and historically relevant figure, might reveal a certain desire to accommodate a more general accessibility, which speaks more about the audience in the area than it does the maker.

Smith, on her part, is self-possessed and self-aware, having once said in a New York Times interview that “The history of Times Square has been erased and made boring.” [3] Where does this piece fit in Times Square’s place and history? Smith responded to the Huffington Post:

“Who owns Times Square now is radically different from who owned it 20 or 30 years ago. […] But you still have all the spectacle of lights and the history of lights.” [4]

Serena Qiu

Kiki Smith’s Chorus is on view through September 4th, 2012. Images courtesy of the artist, Art Production Fund and James Ewing.

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