New York

Margo Sawyer and Marek Walczak, “The Bird-house Project”

Hong Ning Residence for the Elderly

Public art is often most successful when its objectives are limited and clear. Grand and ambitious schemes are not necessarily more communicative, inclusive, or “public” than smaller projects that alter and enliven workable spaces. Interesting pieces are frequently installed in out-of-the-way places that are neither sought out nor traveled to with any regularity These marginal sites—situated somewhere between the definitions of public and private—often provide strong settings for art. This is not particularly surprising at a time when public art’s prospects and importance are much in question.

“The Birdhouse Project,” a collaboration by Margo Sawyer and Marek Walczak, is installed in such a site—an enclosed quiet courtyard behind the Hong Ning Residence for the Elderly in Chinatown. The courtyard itself would be an unremarkable open space were it not for the encroachment of lush flower and vegetable gardens that surround the perimeter of the space and reach in toward the center, creating a node with many projecting paths. On the north edge of this space Walczak and Sawyer have built a cluster of stainless steel towers set in a mosaic base. Atop every pole (they are cut at various lengths) is a small birdhouse, each of which is a unique welded and enameled object. Together they look like minarets situated above some small imagined community Feeders and a birdbath lie beneath the birdhouses and among the steel poles, and a simple pulley and winch system suspends and balances one of the basins. A nearby fountain emits a slight trickle of water, creating a constant, restful sound.

The project has small, focused aspirations. It appears to generate both pleasure and curiosity among the residents. Through the use of a variety of materials, a great attention to detail, and an inherent contrast between industrial materials, ornamental surfaces, and variable configurations, “The Birdhouse Project” sustains genuine interest.

This project is a fine example of the many quiet interventions that occur both by chance and by design in city spaces. It also supports the notion that functional public art appears to be a growing phenomenon. If contemporary public art cannot offer meaning to an undetermined, changing group of viewers, it can have a purpose anyone may grasp. In this new genre, the goal of public art is to have a purpose, thereby deflecting questions about meaning and relevance. And here Sawyer’s and Walczak’s functional agenda is so minimal that other, more interesting, observations and ideas can be developed as well. “The Birdhouse Project” is a special moment in public life that adds interest to the space and provides the possibility for moments of quiet inspection. It respects patterns of activity and yet alters them; there are slight pauses and shifts of focus. The day I visited this site, the baths and feeders were empty and not a bird was in sight. Even function and utility can be an unkept promise in public art.

Patricia C. Phillips