I remember when I was excited to ride the subway. As a girl from the suburbs with no car, the subway represented ultimate freedom. But, as soon as tourists realized I could give them directions, I was pretty over it. Between delays, cramped rush-hour traffic, and mystery liquids dripping from ceilings, the Subway isn't most folks' favorite place. Still, every so often, something beautiful will catch your eye.
In the 1980s, the MTA Arts & Design was founded to bring life into the underground. Some of it is simply mind-blowing, so I decided to share some of my favorites and their (sometimes surprising!) history:
1. LIFE UNDERGROUND, 2001
BY TOM OTTERNESS
14TH STREET/EIGHT AVENUE
The figurines dotting the 8th avenue stop on the L train have been a longtime favorite installation of mine. Other than the obvious animals tiled along the walls of the entrance to the Museum of Natural History, I hadn’t really noticed any subway art until I encountered these little characters. Created by Tom Otterness and installed in 2001, the statues that make up Life Underground depict some relatively bleak NYC scenes – often involving money signs. While some figures are jumping the turnstiles to avoid paying, some are being dragged out by police, and others are large, menacing figures taking coins from smaller figures. The piece is like a petite, more cartoonish version of actual life, and even though the scenes are bleak, the characters are honestly kinda cute.
Weirdly, Tom Otterness has sort of an evil past. Before his commercial successes throughout the nineties, he made independent “punk” films often focused on violence. His 1977 movie called Shot Dog Film (in which he shoots and kills an actual dog he adopted) eventually resurfaced, causing mass outrage and many of his serious art contracts to be cancelled. In 2014 an artist named Andrew Tider created his own addition to the 8th avenue piece – done in Otterness’s own style. The addition, set up briefly before being removed, showed a small bronze Otterness pointing a gun at a dog, and a small figure of a man standing on top of a coin photographing the scene. The symbolism is quite clear.