Leave it to a clown car of blizzards to give you spring fever when it isn’t even spring. Manhattan itself may be having trouble plowing its streets, but inside a Nolita gallery, visitors can loll like a New York mayor in Bermuda.
With temporary retail spaces all the rage for start-up boutiques and bigger chains looking to experiment with new locations, OpenHouse gallery has already made a name for itself in the business world as New York City’s only pop-up rental venue. The self-described “vanguard multipurpose exhibition and installation space that convertibly functions as a pop up retail storefront, an experimental marketing location, and an events venue” is currently wrapping up another headlining endeavor – during the month of January, the gallery converted its 4,500 square foot space into an indoor park. The installation, called “Park Here,” is being cited as New York’s first-ever pop-up park.
Even though everything in “Park Here” is manmade, it’s an inviting 74-degree refuge with all the comforts of an outdoor park, complete with artificial grass, faux trees, forest murals, park benches, a reflecting pond, a see saw, an audio recording of chirping birds, even sunshine from Seasonal Affective Disorder lightboxes. Throw in gawking tourists and passed-out drunks, and you have an authentically-faux NYC park.
“January is awful in New York, and we thought this would be a great way to give people a warm public space to hang out in, and a chance to recharge,” said OpenHouse Gallery’s Whitney Shanks.
The installation has proved to be an enen bigger success than was expected. When it opened on January 8, OpenHouse expected people to come in, look around, and leave, as they would in many art galleries. “But people were here all day, shoes off, lying in the grass,” said Shanks. “There were couples making out, kids running around, even people reading newspapers.”
“It’s nice you have a roof on top so that you can enjoy the park even if it’s snowing,” said six-year-old Linus.
You could say the park is realistic to the point of performance art. Despite the exposed electrical fixtures, the hanging overhead lights, and an industrial heating unit, visitors easily forget that they’re in a gallery space, not an outdoor park. “Someone asked me if the people reading newspapers were paid actors,” said OpenHouse’s operations manager Mike Murphy.
“Park Here,” which closes on January 31, is free and open to the public everyday from 11am to 6pm. In addition, OpenHouse has been offering ticketed events in the guise of favorite park activities, such as morning pilates, lunchtime yoga, curated movie nights and dinner parties by UrbanDaddy, bocce ball, croquet, and local food vendors from some of New York’s top restaurants.
“In a vertical city like New York the lack of community plazas and green spaces affect morale in the winter,” wrote Spread | ArtCulture Blog, “which has inspired many commercial spaces to build indoor gardens to calm those of us driven to agoraphobia by the asphalt jungle.”
Yet for all its popularity, “Park Here” is not without its skeptics. The New York Times called it a “quintessential New York phenomenon” that is “not of a solitary artist exploring the tension between nature and artifice but of a series of corporate partnerships set in motion by the people who run the place:”
“For OpenHouse, then, Park Here is nothing revolutionary, just a clever way to keep the place’s name in circulation during a slow season. Fine. But for the people who amble in, flop down, spread out, lie on top of each other, flirt, relax, catch up or check out, it’s something more: an experiment in urban sociology.”
“As a permanent thing, people probably would say, ‘We need real grass,’” NYU sociologist Dalton Conley told The New York Times. “But as a temporary thing, they accept the lack of verisimilitude. In fact, I bet some of it is ironic.”
It is ironic, not only when you remember the fact that the park is fake but also that the park is temporary. Yet that may be one of its draws, In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote that “it is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality” because transience leads to dreams whereas longevity leads to thoughts. It’s easier to appreciate something in the moment rather than intellectualize it if we know it’s not going away.
Which suggests another factor behind “Park Here’s” appeal – its parallel temporality with the capricious fluctuations of an ever-changing New York. “Around countless corners,” the AP reported, “the weird, unexpected, edgy, grimy New York – the town that so many looked to for so long as a relief from cookie-cutter America – has evolved into something else entirely: tamed, packaged, even predictable.” Change without warning has become the topography of Manhattan, to the point where authenticity, like a real park, has to take a backseat to stability, even if it involves fake trees and grass, because Park Here doesn’t change day to day.
In a city as heavily landscaped as New York, it’s hard to even differentiate between the artificiality of “Park Here” and the fabrication that went into creating Central Park. There’s a Stepford-esque comfort to its sterilized consistency, and that creates a protective connection between visitors and the gallery. Urban sociology is about more than the study of metropolises; it’s also about how people live and inhabit not only small spaces, but more importantly, contained communal areas. Cities are the epitome of human wrangling over nature, and sometimes with acclimation to urban environments comes a sense of frenzy when you try to let that control go in the wilderness. Architecture makes us happy when it symbolizes the ideal. In this case, the popularity of “Park Here” comes not only from New York’s continual bad weather, but also perhaps the ideal of escaping Manhattan and retreating into an environment that is just as manmade and controlled as its surrounding city.
Photo courtesy of Moriza via Flickr