Whenever I find myself landing at West 14th Street and 8th Avenue, I visit with the gnomelike creatures living in the nooks and crannies of the subway platforms of the A,C, and E lines and the walkway between those platforms and the L.
Many of them are carrying bags spilling over with coins; others are sneaking under the gates. They amuse me with their avarice and naughtiness. Are they reminding us of the Boss Tweed era, when all politicians were scoundrels, or are they commenting on the current state of things? I sometimes find myself pondering these questions when I’m down there, but mostly I just smile at their pranks.
These little cartoonish folk (are they people or animals or a combination?) are the brain children of Tom Otterness. The installation, which he calls “Life Underground,” was completed in 2004 and launched the sculptor’s successful career creating public art. At www.tomostudio.com, you can find out what fun he’s been having.
I had the chance to visit Otterness’ studio in Long Island City a few years ago when he kindly opened it to the public as part of Open House New York (www.ohny.org). Otterness told us that he had trouble ending the project. “I just kept adding more figures until my wife put her foot down and told me ‘no more!'”
When Otterness wanted to seat one of the underground characters on a bench, the Transit Authority told him he could do so only if he purchased an extra bench for the platform–and he did!
These cartoonish gnomes sometimes bring to mind Sondheim’s made-for-television “Evening Primrose,” a haunting tale of menacing mannequins that come to life each night when a fancy department store goes dark. I wonder what havoc these little folk wreck when we’re not looking…And why are they all bald and androgynous?