New York

Tom Otterness

Brooke Alexander

Using his familiar tubby, toylike figures, Tom Otterness has created The Tables, 1986–87, a theatrical tour de force rich with sociological import. On three Cor-Ten steel tables, which are arranged in one long row, an array of cast-bronze objects is laid out in a narrative of contrasting scenes. On the first table, animals and humans live happily together in a primitive paradise, although it is already tainted with worship of the machine (a telephone), while, emerging through hinged doors that open out of the tabletop, a giant whale represents the forces of nature, whose power mankind has harnessed to create a “whale of a bomb.” On the table at the other end, an enormous spider dominates, symbolizing a mercenary world preoccupied with money-making (there is a bank full of pennies, as well as a large cast-bronze penny). On the table in between, Otterness depicts two social orders, which are divided by a rectangular basin: the old ghetto world of wealth, with a little apartment building of figures violating one another in a variety of ways, and a brave new world of tiny human figures engaged in the process of constructing two monumental utopian figures. Perched on either end of the basin are two comical circus elephants, as if at the center ring of the three-ring circus of modern existence, in contrast to the tragic image of the cracked globe suspended above the basin—the earth after the Bomb. But perhaps there is some hope, for a little shepherd figure meditates on top of the shattered globe. We are given some clueas to what this all means in a working drawing, Tables (Working Drawing), 1986–87, on which the artist has inscribed various notes in pencil, including the word “UTOPIA” identifying the first table, as opposed to the “INDUSTRY/TECH, SCIENCE, MILITARY” of the table at the other end, with the “new” and “old” societies between the two.

For me, the tables signal something special: the end of flat steel plates as an esthetic in themselves. They are put into allegorical/moral service, and, indeed, Otterness has included four place settings (plates, forks, knives), overtly signaling the tables’ “humanistic” purpose. Flanking all three tables are bronze benches that Otterness has constructed “picnic table” style, attached to the same framework that supports the tabletops. By sitting at the tables, as one is free to do, one is directly involved in the scene—playing with the toys, as it were. This is also important: for all the space it occupies, the work is not monumental; rather than overwhelming the spectator, it draws one into it. This is truly participatory sculpture, with an edifying tale that nonetheless always remains “fun.” Otterness seems to be suggesting that it is only as intimate play that art can once again engage our most vital interests.

The work has a certain self-mocking dimension, which is part of its confident ambition. The lilliputian figures are self-satirizing, and the way one of the elephant sculptures functions as a Trojan horse (with tiny figures hidden inside) suggests art’s deceptiveness. The giant figural sculptures suggest that art can encourage delusions of grandeur. The contrast between the scales of the tables and figures adds a further Swiftian satiric note. At the same time, there is an ominous, even grim tone to the piece, not only in the essentially apocalyptic narrative—the bomb has fallen—but on a physical level, in the rust color of the whole and the almost claustrophobic denseness of all its parts. Also, the subtle incoherence of the story adds a certain menace; if it can’t be clearly told, we’ll never know what really happened, and so we won’t be able to prevent the disaster from happening again. In this major humanistic sculpture, Otterness has created a fable fraught with consequence for us all.

Donald Kuspit