Field Notes

Tom Otterness Has Left His Mark On New York City

The artist's bronze, poetic sculptures summarize the trials and tribulations of city dwelling — and of his own life.

Photo courtesy of Tom Otterness


A lesson perpetually pounded into my head as a child was to be aware of my surroundings. My favorite hobby, which stressed my mother out, was wandering through stores, taking in all of the objects available for purchase, and making a mental wish list so I could beg for these things later. If something caught my eye, my curious mind would only settle once I went to examine my newfound treasure closely.

As I've gotten older, wandering semi-aimlessly still feels rebellious. However, going about the city without the warning lights ready to announce danger in my way would be foolish. Breaking the conversations I have with myself in my mind, a voice always pipes up to remind me to look both ways before crossing the street and take a peek over my shoulders to reassure myself I am not being followed.

“As I've gotten older, wandering semi-aimlessly still feels rebellious.”

What makes my stomach drop just as quickly as the needling sensation of a figure in my blind spot is stumbling upon information about an artist whose sinister background is incongruous to their work. The sculptor Tom Otterness is known for his whimsical sculptures that live across the globe, some of which include giant millipedes, friendly frogs, and tiny figures that share a striking resemblance to Mr. Monoploy. In 2002, the New York Times art critic Ken Jonhson crowned him, “the world’s best public sculptor.” However, after digging deeper into his oeuvre, I came across an unfortunate story of his nightmarish video Shot Dog Film. The title describes the recording and I will spare the details that made my skin crawl as I read them.

If you have ever found yourself at the 14th st and 8th Avenue station, his critters have taken over the entirety of this sprawling platform. Shortly after this installation was completed, noted writer and artist Gary Indiana reviewed the work and reminded the public of his nefarious and seemingly forgotten celluloid past. Titled "Life Underground," vignettes of life are reflected to us through Otterness’ conception. An angry face swallows a creature whole, not unlike how the citizens of the city are forced to succumb to MTA’s craving of inflicting chaos on everyone (this imagery is not unlike Franciso Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.) Petit guards stand at attention to ensure there is order on the platform, one, in particular, guards the collected fare that is wasted on a system that is never fully operational.

Much like the aforementioned video, the theme that emerges across his work is to confront his unwitting viewer with scenes extracted from their subconscious. However, a few revelers have found a way to make fun despite the misery by finding a place of their own somewhere in a ceiling, cheering martinis because this is “fun hell” after all.

Photo courtesy of Tom Otterness

His creatures also manage to wander through the city and station themselves in places that are far worse than being trapped in a train car. Stranded along the northwest edge of Roosevelt Island on wooden plinths are the two main characters in the work "The Marriage of Real Estate and Money." The precariousness of gambling love and financial assets is a risk many are willing to take. When you’re dealt a good hand, why not go all in and bet the house? With their arms linked and smiles engraved on their faces, the happy couple is ready to embark on a financially fruitful future.

Like most things that are too good to be true, reality sets in and situations start to unravel from precarious to disastrous quickly if the foundation (literal in the real estate sense) is already beginning to crack. Our characters soon become preyed upon by loan sharks costumed in human skin and a penny pincher in the form of embodied as a crab. This piece is physically out of reach for most lucky in money and love to witness the danger of mixing business and pleasure. Otterness’ omen stands braving the treacherous waters of the East River as his target audience falls hook, line, and sinker into an uncertain pool of fortune.

Photo courtesy of Tom Otterness

Out of all the ominous pieces Otterness has placed throughout the city, hiding in plain sight, The Silver Towers Playground may be the most bone-chilling of them all. It is difficult to not consider his pivot toward crafting playful imagery as a way of erasing his wicked past, which he certainly succeeded in doing.

In general, it would be in one's best interest to heed the feeling of turning around and running for one's life when a towering figure looms in the distance. Approaching with caution is necessary at times even when the figure appears approachable. This jolly bronze giant lounges in the grass, its arms are extended with palms facing the sky for visitors to nestle themselves into. Hip bones are transformed into stairs, helping humans up the kneecap landing before sliding down their legs. Securely affixed on its head is a hat shaped like the water towers that dot the skyline, dressed to mimic its surroundings.

Photo courtesy of Tom Otterness

Horrific news has a way of jumping into our lives when we least expect it. Are Otterness’ sweet sculptures perpetually soured by his past? Questioning the ability to separate the art from the artist rivals the debate of the chicken or the egg coming first. However, the artist’s fingerprint imprint can never be fully erased from his creations.

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