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Pocketful of Resistance Art – Tom Otterness’ Life Underground

What do we miss when don’t remain curious? Where are stories hidden in obscure pockets of Manhattan? Whose work tells the story of the City?

Whether you’re a New Yorker or a visitor, you’ve probably passed through the 14th Street subway station at 8th avenue. Home to the A, C, E, and L trains, the station spans 2 blocks north and contains an inconspicuous, mystical work of art that thousands of commuters miss each day while staring at our phones. Where did it come from? What’s the point?

This subway station was renovated in the 1990s, at which point $200,000–1% of the station renovation budget–was allotted to the commission of a unique project by Arts for Transit. The MTA’s Arts for Transit program commissions permanent public art in MTA-owned transit hubs; Life Underground is among the most famous and widely-publicized of roughly 200.

A committee reviewed 800 proposals and selected Tom Otterness, a Lower East Side resident known for his public art. Otterness’ controversial past as performance artist drew backlash from some New Yorkers, but his ability to amplify the public consciousness at the time made him an obvious choice for this project.

To inspire Life Underground, Otterness drew inspiration from images of 1800s New York City: everything from the early construction of the subway to political cartoons of the day that represented public opinion. Otterness drew from cartoons by notoriously racist 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Nast’s work targeted–among many other figures–corrupt politician William “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall. Tweed, one of the most politically corrupt leaders in the city’s history, was in power at the time the subway was being built, and through these images, Otterness put together the themes that informed his project.

Like Nast’s notable works, Otterness’ figures have money bags for heads. An alligator eats a tiny figure while a politician observes. The figures sit on each other, steal from each other, hang from beams and climb out of sewers. They are satirical and cartoonish, but they draw on a dark thread of New York City’s history: money, power, and the class divide.

Over a century after Nast’s prime, Otterness realized that many New Yorkers’ concerns–particularly regarding financial oppression and the class divide–had not changed. He dug into this opportunity to make his mark on New York City permanently, and to touch on an ever-relevant issue through his art.

Otterness ending up completing 4 or 5 times the amount of work he was commissioned to do–over 100 bronze sculptures in five years. It took almost ten years to renovate the station, so he put the project on display near Central Park, above ground, and then in Battery Park City. By 2004, all the sculptures were moved to their permanent home in the 14th St/8th Ave Station.

Who controls the story that gets told about New York? How can public art transform the experience of a space, and the narrative about it? Why is public art necessary, and who should decide whose work gets a platform .