It took the World Science Festival to get me back into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many of us who live in the general vicinity of New York City are subject to strange laws of venerability and familiarity when it comes to Manhattan’s two world-classiest museums. The time I spend here seems to have an inverse relationship to the time I spend in either the Museum of Natural History or the Met, while the vehemence with which I recommend them to city visitors has increased. While they are essential parts of the New York experience, once you check off the items at the top of the must-see list, there’s a lot of list left.
Case in point: New Yorkers who have not yet made it to the Museum of the City of New York might want to go before “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011” closes July 15th. The exhibit relates the story of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan to bring the unruly port and farmland(!) into alignment with Cartesian ideals of beauty and pragmatic real estate interests, and gives visitors a bird’s-eye view of the city’s transformation. Mirrors at opposite ends of the exhibition room conjure up vistas to forever: Did you know that if you stand in the middle of a perfectly square intersection of the grid you can see straight across the island, out to the horizon? Considering scale and perception, seeing the horizon might as well be seeing forever.
Scale and perception figured prominently in another outstanding exhibit, Cloud City, a towering constellation of habitable pods designed by Tomás Saraceno and installed on the roof of the Met. The sculpture was the subject of the World Science Festival panel discussion Artist as Innovator: Visions of a Floating City, featuring an all-star lineup of scientists and architects, who explored a different kind of intersection: one between art and science.
Much of Saraceno’s art involves forging physical forms from difficult concepts. For instance, the rooftop pods mimic the intricate structure of a spider web, with a white room dense strewn with fine wires, giving viewers the sense of being inside an enormous black widow’s retreat. A spider’s web has an identifiable node where the hunter watches for prey: Saraceno’s sculpture located this retreat on the ground rather than on the ceiling, turning a structure which co-panelist arachnologist Peter Jäger knows well into something with an entirely different purpose, simply by changing the way one experiences it spatially.
Cloud City also actively confuses up and down, sky and surface. As much as urban life necessitates vertical development, we still spend most of our time on x/y planes: the sidewalk, the sixteenth floor, the four by four square of an elevator floor. Besides moving you out to bubbles floating away from planes, Cloud City’s dodecahedrons have mirrored panels moving the city below and the sky above into new orientations. So you see your home in new shapes and places, you have a new relationship with the beings below and above, and boundaries disappear behind reflections.
Reflecting is one of the most explicable things light does, but with the most amazing effects: the mirrors in both museums’ exhibits were how I first associated them. We understand that the colors and images in reflections are muted compared to looking directly, but like Saraceno, we don’t quite believe it. After the Cloud City bubbles poke holes in the buildings around Central Park, see if the stars in the ponds there aren’t a little closer and brighter. Like finding a practical formulation of a scientific precept in a sculpture, or a new vision of the city on top of a familiar institution, unexpected discoveries are powerful. Our wonderment that the sky should be under our feet adds to the reflection’s beauty. You can visit Cloud City through November 4th, weather permitting.
Artist as Innovator: Visions of a Floating City takes place on Thursday, May 31, at 6:00 PM at Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall in The Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center. Get tickets or view the full festival schedule to learn more about the many other 2012 Festival programs.