the metal midget figures of 14th Street Station in New York (Public sculpture NYC iii)

If you are rushing through 14th Street station in New York, or perhaps just distracted by your book, newspaper or cellphone, it’s easy to completely miss these charming little fellows.


Naturally they can’t be a trip or bump-hazard,  so they’re placed out of the way.  That means tucked discreetly out of the natural sight-lines too.  So they  stand instead in the in the frames and shadows of the subway’s  engineering and architecture.   Some in the diagonals between huge steel struts, stairways and escalators.  Others perch atop the subway’s massive steel beams.    Like I say, it’s very easy to pass through the whole station, and just miss them all completely.

Arran's piece on 14th Street station sculptures  Art of New York Dublin DEcoded


But that would be an awful shame.

14th Street station sculptures  Art of New York Dublin DEcoded.JPG

14th Street station sculptures  Art of New York Dublin DEcoded

Because really, this is one of the most charming pieces of work I’ve ever encountered.  There is something ineffably sweet about the small people, as they go about their different tasks.   Some are clearly workers, with hardhats and overalls, engaged in honest manual labour.  They fix and build and sweep and make and clean and do.

Arran's piece on Art of New York Dublin DEcoded

I spotted one poor unfortunate guy who seemed to be homeless, sleeping rough on the streets.

4th Street 10 station sculptures  Art of New York

Yet other figures seem to be more capitalists, with top hats and sleek clothes,  many even hoarding cash, clutching comically cartoon-large coins tightly in their paws.

14th Street 5 station sculptures  Art of New York Dublin DEcoded

All this aspect of the work seems to invite political critique.   I’m usually partial to a bit of political critique myself.   From time to time, it’s often what a debate most needs.   But frankly, its difficult to focus, on political critique, or anything else remotely serious, when even the sleek business, rentier class turn out to be these tiny, chubby, little charmers.

14th Street 6 station sculptures  Art of New York Dublin DEcoded

It’s a puzzle this dichotomy, this whole tension, between the potential, ermm..  “class-struggle”  aspect of the work, and the contrary fact that that potential is unlikely to be ever realized because frankly,  all the figures, regardless of “income” are all just so damn nice.  You ask yourself, in this highly capitalist city, this capital of global finance, did the artist have to “code” his work, or dress it up in niceness perhaps, to get it past some Art-commissioning body or committee perhaps   (Blinding them all with charm?)   But that doesn’t seem likely dies it?  Because there’s something very genuine and affectionate about this work.   Maybe that’s just the way the artist sees the world, essentially apolitical,  with genuine and equal affection for all types of folk who populate (his representation of) the city.    It’s a puzzler, this whole question.  But it somehow never detract from the central fact of the whole work, which is the fun, the sheer pleasure,  of finding these little guys, then being charmed, amused and intrigued by them.

Some of you might have read one of my posts on other New York Public sculptures, either the fantastic Lego-building  “Collectivity”  project of Olafur Eliason, or the superb standing circle of mirrors, on the Brooklyn riverfront Promenade.  Both of those I think, are really wonderful, clever, generous and thought-provoking works of art.    And this work is just as good.    As figurative work, featuring its cute miniature people, cartoonish even it might be easier to initially engage with, I don’t know.   Maybe it even provides even more pleasure for some people than those other works.   Which, after that Lego piece, would really be saying something.

Either way, I loved it.

After i encountered this project, I went online to research and try find out a little more about it.   The project is called Life Underground, and the artist-sculptor is Tom Otterness.    It was mostly installed in 2001.  (one has to imagine before September of that year)  One piece I found was an interview with the artist.   One thing he said  struck me as particularly resonant.   He still lives in New York city.  And he said that if ever he feels depressed or sad, even to this day, he just makes his way down to this subway station under 14th street.

There he hangs about,  in the general area of his work, waiting.     He rarely has to wait long.   Some couple or person, or family will find the work.   The reaction is nearly always the same.  It just makes people happy.   The artist never announces or introduces himself.  He just remains at a discreet distance.  he walks home again straight after.  But just seeing how happy his little sculptures make other people, has the same effect on him, (as you’d expect).  It always cheers him up.   🙂

And it’s hard to disagree with that.

14th Street 8 station sculptures  Art of New York

4th Street 9 station sculptures  Art of New York

4th Street 8 station sculptures  Art of New York 12

7 thoughts on “the metal midget figures of 14th Street Station in New York (Public sculpture NYC iii)

  1. You know I’ve enjoyed these posts, Arran! The 14th Street station is pretty awful except for these little fellas, who make it worthwhile. You can’t help but smile when you see them.

    So glad you had the chance to see so many things, and you obviously took a ton of photos–well done!


    1. very kind to say that Julie I’m kinda worried these last 3 public sculpture posts are a bit verbose. But couldn’t help myself, just found all 3 artworks very thought-provoking. The quality of Art in New York is generally speaking, really sky high. That definitely includes, perhaps especially includes, most of your fantastic public sculptures. Although i’m done blogging on this particular subject, we saw other great stuff too, including an incredible outdoor exhibition of photography installed (ex-stalled?) in that Brooklyn linear park between Dumbo and B. Heights. Saw tons of good stuff in fact, and that’s before we went near any of the superlative, galleries and museums. Anyway, thanks for comment, and yes, we had an absolute blast. Thanks for looking in, really appreciate that. You are right to love New York, it is such an endlessly stimulating city. Still jet-lagged, nearly a week later, and still buzzing from the trip!


        1. Thank you Rose Anne, very kind of you to say so. Am delighted you enjoyed it. Normally I’d never take a mid-summer break like this one (to NY) just because that’s peak-season for me, in my little tour business here. But we had to go over to U.S, for reasons I won’t go into here, so we thought we’d make a holiday of it. It was great, since NY is an endlessly fascinating place. Although I’m not entirely sure I’d like to live there, even if I was wealthy. It’s all a little bit too tall, and bit too intense for me. Very enjoyable to visit though. The quality of the art, and much of the architecture, really is extraordinary.


    1. Yes, myself and the missus were there in NYC, for a week-9 days, right up to last Saturday in fact. Shame, would have been lovely to meet you. If or when there’s a return journey will drop you a line. (and Ditto to you incidentally, if you ever make it over to Dublin). New York rocks, hadn’t been there for tears and years; had 1/2 forgot, such a fascinating city. Lucky you. Great place to live, absolutely loved it.


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