New York

Ann Messner

Times Square Traffic Triangle

J. G. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island (1973) is about an architect whose car veers off a highway and tumbles down to a concrete patch beneath the crisscrossing overpasses. The entire book chronicles the architect’s attempt to escape or to be discovered amidst the chaos, congestion, and high-speed traffic of the modern highway system.

Ann Messner’s concrete island is on ground level and not situated beyond the motorists’ or pedestrians’ sight lines, but the space shares the surreal quality of Ballard’s imagined locus of technologically induced estrangement. Part of Times Square, one of New York’s densest and busiest areas, this triangular patch of concrete is formed by the convergence of a diagonal street, Broadway, with the city’s regular north-south street grid. Within this nondescript space that is merely a byproduct of the regulation of traffic, Messner has scattered five sculptural elements of welded steel, all modestly scaled. The installation, sponsored by the Public Art Fund Inc., does not call attention to itself. But if you notice it (it will be here until March 1) and dodge the traffic to take a closer look, its impact is powerful.

Messner’s new project is ambiguously called Meteor. The title brings to mind a speeding projectile that has crashed to earth and split apart on impact. It could be an atmospheric phenomenon of temporary incandescence whose passage to earth was unexpected and whose composition is alien. But these elements do not seem so unfamiliar; in fact, they are all made of found objects. Although they are not completely identifiable, they have the appearance of ordinary artifacts and appliances—ironing boards, washing machines, and other objects of domestic convenience. When Man Ray attached a row of carpet tacks to an iron (Gift, 1921), he subverted function and meaning in the most aggressive way. Messner is a far gentler prophet, but the message is similar.

Meteor’s five elements have been stripped of purpose and rendered unfinished. Messner has wire-brushed their surfaces and coated them to create a gray, metallic finish. Their intentional subtlety is a provocative counterpoint to Times Square’s flashy neon and boisterous activity. In its understated way, the installation conveys an ominous sensation, due not to any confirmation of some cataclysmic occurrence but to its suggestion of a human-generated randomness, like a throw of the dice. If the future is cause for despair, it is because it is imperiled by our culture’s increasing reliance on short-sighted, self-serving technological solutions without regard to their broader, global implications—a far greater danger than the unlikely chance of an encounter with a hurtling meteor from outer space. That we continue to clutter the earth with long-lasting, rapidly obsolescent manufactured goods designed for our own temporary comfort is the world’s most serious, compulsive gamble. Messner’s piece sustains this tense ambiguity; whatever its point of origin, the glow is gone, leaving only some strange residual forms.

Patricia C. Phillips