The New World

Background information

1991, by Tom Otterness. 4' x 300' (frieze), 3'5"h x 4'w x 1'5 deep (niche), 3'8"h x 3'11"l x 3'2"w (baby)
The New World is not only one of the city's most challenging public art installations, it is also one of the most rewarding. Its ambiguity demands viewer involvement; its compositional complexity invites an explanation; its metaphorical and allegorical imagery suggests a unifying narrative.

Extending across the width of the plaza, a frieze on the pergola recalls ancient Roman reliefs placed on columns and arches. Rather than celebrating the triumphs or conquests of an emperor or general, however, Otterness portrays work, play, cooperation, war between the sexes and the violent overthrow and dismemberment of a despotic king. In a niche in the central pillar, a shackled female representing the artist as creator chained by the conventions and restraints of society, stares intently into the plaza. Appearing to be floating above the central fountain, a baby, symbolizing rebirth and renewal, lies on its back and holds aloft a globe.

Otterness derived the chained figure from an earlier work of his called the "hermit philosopher". The frieze was suggested by the architect after seeing a section in the artist's studio of one that Otterness created in 1982. In designing The New World, Otterness used architectural blueprints and constructed a maquette of the site. The architect responded by altering the proportions of the columns and changing details on the pergola. One of the nation's largest cast cement artworks, the completed frieze consists of 35 24"x 115" panels.

Otterness presented his basic design and concept to the NEA art advisory committee in 1988. He argued that his proposal, with its allusions to America's anti-monarchical tradition, was both relevant and appropriate for the federal complex. Though the committee approved the design, G.S.A. administrators refused to sign off on it until Otterness removed objectionable images in the frieze, such as the king kissing the posterior of an elephant, a monumental phallus being pulled down by female workers and Saturn- like figures--both giving birth and devouring their babies.

Architecturally, the three components of the $266,000 installation formalize the central plaza and link the three buildings of the Federal Center to the earlier Federal Building. The work, however, not only occupies physical space, it also occupies political space. Public art placed in proximity to government officials can become engulfed in controversy because the audience is influential, well-placed and has an institutional mechanism to amplify their views. Timing can also be critical in shaping the context, defining the issues and nourishing the controversy. So it was with the installation of The New World.

In the months preceeding the completion of the New World, Republican Senator Jesse Helms led a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts for funding what he and his supporters considered to be pornography. The issues he raised heightened sensitivity about public funding of art that contained nudity.

Shortly after The New World was installed in late 1991, District Court Judge Dickran Tevrizian complained to Congressman Edward R. Roybal that the baby in the fountain, with its exposed genitals, was "a shrine to pedophiles". Roybal, who claimed he saw two boys touch the baby's genitals and feared the sculpture would "attract the homeless that come in, perverts, graffiti artists, everything", called the GSA and ordered them to either modify the work or remove it. In response the GSA Regional Administrator, Edwin Thomas ordered the sculpture in the niche and the baby holding aloft the globe be removed.

The art community quickly mobilized and protested the action, while Mayor Tom Bradley and the Los Angeles Times gave political and editorial support for the restoration. Otterness and the GSA administrators subsequently discussed security issues involving the work and agreed to reinstall the two sculptural components along with constructing a "plaza enhancement"--a protective railing around the baby--to keep it from being touched by the army of pedophiles, perverts and graffiti artists that presumably Congressman Roybal and the GSA expected would invade the plaza. Otterness said "We don't have many victories in the public art scene. I'm happy if there is debate and discussion." He also said "That the piece was reinstalled unchanged, I hope, would be encouraging to other artists."

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, September 1997.

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