It’s 11:30 on a weeknight in Times Square, and you can actually breathe here. The usual, excessive human hordes have dissipated. Elmo and Mickey Mouse are chatting under the news ticker, quickly pulling down their masks and going back into character any time they sense a group of tourists. Caricaturists and food carts are packing up, and late-night product deliveries for Sephora are being carted through on crates.
Three minutes before midnight, the electronic billboards pause their alternating loop of Lexus and Perrier ads to display a 10-second countdown. At zero, the screens fill up with flowers: it’s Jennifer Steinkamp’s Botanic, the chosen artwork for the May 2016 edition of Midnight Moment.
Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin
A year ago, Rafaël Rozendaal filled those same screens with kissing faces, and a couple of months ago, Lorna Mills made the sun rise at midnight. Such interventions have been organized by Times Square Arts since 2012, with support from the Times Square Advertising Coalition. In fact, this May marks the program’s fourth anniversary.
In Steinkamp’s short, three-minute animation, flowering condolence plants slide slowly across the lit screens. As they tumble against the edges of the frame, they quietly scatter the components of their being, transforming into piles of leaves, petals, twigs, and seeds. “The opportunity to create artwork on such a grand scale within extreme iconic architecture is amazing for me,” Steinkamp says in an announcement released by Lehmann Maupin. “I am excited about my work being presented in this context, and the meaning that the artwork can lend to the context and vice versa.”
The neighboring architecture does indeed define the work. The screens may be huge, but the flowers seem trapped in a narrow space behind their flat surfaces, forced to break apart as they come into contact with the indomitable elements at their sides. The Bubba Gump, McDonald’s, and Forever 21 signs aren’t going anywhere, and several non-participating, flickering billboards are still vying for attention, trying to sell you a soda or George Clooney’s latest movie. The relief from the ads is only partial. It may be that no art is strong enough to unseat the powers that be here, and the giant plants, bouncing around overhead, point out those limits.
During the three-minute transformation, people around here seem as unfazed as the rotating Hard Rock Cafe sign running its course. Two groups seated at outdoor tables in the middle of the square, sipping on Starbucks cups, absentmindedly pursue their conversation. A guy who has been taking portraits of his girlfriend from every angle imaginable—going on 20 minutes now—remains fully consumed in his project. The only people who seem to be noticing the change are two women, who pulled up a few moments before the flowers appeared. I ask them if they came specifically for the event. “No, we were just here and then it happened. What is it?” one of them asks in a thick Dutch accent. By the time they’d finished telling me about their cruise ship itinerary, the Moment was over.
Jennifer Steinkamp’s Botanic is on view at 11:57 PM every night in May. Learn more here.