For most New Yorkers, most of the time, Times Square is a challenge. Walking around the crowds of tourists, vendors, break dance teams, and multiple Elmos and Iron Mans can be intimidating when you’re just trying to get it to work.
But it is also worrying to see the area almost cleaned up, as was the case last year during the pandemic. As pedestrians slowly begin to fill the area again, a monument has been erected for those who have passed by.
âA fountain for the survivors,“ Created by Pamela Council, an artist whose works are steeped in black American culture, is an 18-foot fountain adorned with more than 350,000 acrylic nails, on display in Times Square through December 8.
The hundreds of thousands of acrylic nails used for framing vary in size, from tiny nail length to rectangular heel. Some are painted pale pink with a white tip. Some are magenta, gold, and yellow. Others are dazzled with rhinestones and crystals. A few feature designs hand painted by local nail artists.
Many are deployed on the shell of the fountain, which forms a curved, bulbous shape around it, resembling a 3D rendering of an organ from an anatomy book. Pink and magenta clouds are painted inside the structure, and the ceiling is padded with silk fabric, a gold light fixture holding it together in the middle.
The fountain in the middle holds 100 gallons of water, which flow over three levels into a large fuchsia cauldron-shaped dish.
As one enters the artwork, the loud music of the dance teams, the murmur of the crowd and the bright lights of the billboards seem to fade. In the midst of the chaos of Times Square, the space is serene and dreamy, the sound of water soothes the senses.
“The nails become that kind of armor and that layer of protective style, between the bustling audience of Times Square and the people who visit this intimate space,” Council, who uses their pronouns, said in a recent interview.
Nails also symbolize self-expression and the small gestures of personal maintenance on which many people rely – or ritualize – to persevere on a daily basis.
“We build monuments to win wars and tragedies, but I need a monument to maintain,” Council said. “For some people, it’s monumental.”
Before the pandemic, more than 300,000 people passed through Times Square every day, according to the Times Square District Management Association. But last year, the number of pedestrians fell to less than 50,000 people per day.
âThere are fewer people moving around Times Square, but the people who are, are workers, these are the people who make things work, these are the essential workers that we have been talking about for a year and a half,â says Mrs. Council.
Now, with 64% of New Yorkers fully vaccinated, the city is bouncing back. In September, there were nearly 219,000 people returning to Times Square. The fountain was unveiled last week in Duffy Square, a small plaza in the northernmost triangle of Times Square.
âSurvival seemed like a very universally urgent notion that people of all walks of life and experience could relate to right now,â said Jean Cooney, director of Times Square Arts, the public art arm of Times Square Alliance and the organization that commissioned the work, “whether for them this idea around survival is related to the pandemic or something more personal.”
It’s Ms Council’s goal of survival, punctuated with joy and grim humor, which Ms Cooney says could bring much-needed levity to the region.
One recent weekend, Michael Vanfossen, 40, and his wife stopped to check out the fountain. âWe thought it was an Easter egg,â Vanfossen said. “But up close it’s impressive because it looks like the inside of an ear.”
He added, âMy wife said it looked like a uterus or a fallopian tube. And it looks feminine and with all the nails it makes sense.
Clovice Holt, 30, another viewer (and another artist), said: “It’s 100% black and 100% female.” He added: “This is Black, this is New York, this is exactly what we needed.”
According to a March 2020 New York City Comptroller report, 75% of all frontline workers at the start of the pandemic were people of color. Over 60 percent were women. This reality has contributed to higher death rates from Covid-19 among people of color and worsened already persistent economic inequalities.
Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and economy, noted the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on the city’s black and brown communities: âI think we are at a time when there seems to be greater recognition of the trauma created by racism and racial inequalities, âWilson said. âIt’s important to counter the idea that black people are just resilient. You do what you have to do but what is the cost?
Madame Conseil’s fountain is an offering to these survivors and to all survivors, more generally. âWith the fountains, you can make these offerings and dedications on a civic scale,â they said.
Ms. Council has worked with acrylic nails in the past. In 2012, they created a sculpture titled “Flo Jo World Record Nails” which used 2,000 acrylic nails to fashion a replica of a track and field course in honor of the 200-meter course where the athlete from athletics Florence Griffith Joyner has made history.
Ms Council used the same materials for âA Fountain for Survivorsâ, but this time the artist is not celebrating an individual achievement, but offering a moment of respite to anyone in the city.
âTheir fountain is something really different and completely unexpected. At the same time, they use these materials that you have certainly seen before, âMs. Cooney said of Ms. Council. âWe all understand acrylic nails, but I’ve never seen 400,000 in beautiful, vibrant mosaics. It’s a bit of something incredibly accessible and familiar, but has morphed into something completely spectacular and unexpected.
Ms Council’s choice of nails is part of their wider exploration of their artistic works of the juxtaposition between the flashy style of black beauty and “people wanting to see the reproduction of the black death,” they said.
“People love black dress and culture more than they love us,” they added.
Ms. Council uses the term “Blaxidermy” – a combination of the term Blaxploitation and taxidermy – as a label for the art they produce in this vein. (In 2008, Ms. Council opened a Tumblr account of the same name.)
In 2018, for example, the artist created âRed Drink: A BLAXIDERMY Juneteenth Offeringâ, a palm tree-shaped concrete fountain, with a large base that held 800 gallons of Big Red soda believed to represent sugar, but also human blood. In 2019, they created âBLAXIDERMY Pink,â an installation that featured bubbling chocolate fondue fountains from Lustres Pink Lotion.
The Times Square fountain is its own social commentary, but it also acts as a giveaway. Not for tourists who walk through Times Square and see the fountain – although Ms. Council appreciates them – but for New Yorkers.
âThere’s just a difference between visiting New York and being New Yorker,â Council said. “You must be in it.”