Review of A Gathering by Walter Martin and Paloma Muños

Straphangers passing through the ACE station on Canal Street may justifiably feel as if they have left subterranean New York City and are instead in some sort of morbid aviary, or maybe caught as passerby extras on the set of a remake of a classic Hitchcock film. The 181 birds, however, are neither hungry birds of prey nor film props, but instead they are an art installation, titled A Gathering, and installed as part of the MTA’s Art for Transit initiative.  

The almost two hundred birds were each made by husband-and-wife artist duo Walter Martin and Paloma Muños, and they have been eerily roosting above busy downtown rush hours since 2001. The artists’ portrayal of a somber aviary includes grackles, black birds, and crows, all cast in bronze (Martin and Muños).

As the title might suggest, A Gathering refers to the social nature of birds, drawing a parallel between the natural instincts of birds and the commuters as people who are social creatures. The piece allows the many passersby to objectively look at their reality, as humans who are simply creatures clustered into the human version of an aviary- an urban landscape. The artists have stated that this is their way of portraying the human condition (Vogel). Martin and Muños also attempt to blur the line between reality and fantasy, as any of the many New Yorkers who have rushed past the piece and for a split second questioned the presence of birds roosting on the station’s gates can attest to.  

The artists were commissioned by the MTA, and began A Gathering by studying different types of birds at the American Natural History Museum. Then, all 181 birds of the three different chosen species were cast in bronze and covered in a patina surface finish to mimic the natural sheen of these dark birds’ feathers in nature. They also attempted to mimic the birds’ natural eyes by finishing each sculpture off with translucent glass eyes that are meant to seem to be following the gaze of those looking back up from below. The dedication to reality went even further once the birds were placed in the station. The artists studied how these species of birds roost in the wild, and placed each of the birds roosting high up, mostly along the gates and above the station’s booths, and grouped them as they would group in the wild, in twos, threes and fours (MTA). 

The Canal Street ACE station serves as one of the entrances and exits to Canal Street on 6th Avenue. It is the meeting point of four lower Manhattan neighborhoods: Tribeca, Soho, the Financial District, and the West Village. This fact lends to the area a very unique diversity that causes an especially eclectic crowd to pass through regularly. Although the birds may not be very obviously connected to the area, the intention of the artists- to present a metaphor for urbanites with roosting and congregating birds, as well as an extended metaphor for the human condition- more clearly connects the piece to such a busy and uniquely eclectic station.

It is also worth noting that the origin of Canal Street dates to when an actual canal ran through lower Manhattan- from end to end roughly through where the street is now- and it was eventually drained as part of lower Manhattan’s development. A Gathering could also be seen as a tribute to the busy street’s past life as a body of water, where no doubt many birds roosted in that less urbanized New York, as roosts happen around water.  

Martin and Muños remained true to their aesthetic as artists when working on this piece for the MTA’s Art for Transit public art program. Their usual work usually has the duality seen in A Gathering, a duality that treads the line between the whimsical, cartoonish and witty, and the dark and subtly disturbing. They also work in sculpture and their work constantly references animals portrayed in an indistinctly cartoonish way (Martin and Muños). 

A Gathering is unique among the public works of art seen throughout New York City’s public transportation system in that it is a piece that transforms the whole main space of the station in an undeniable way. It succeeds in ever so slightly bending reality for the commuters and visitors that traverse through, and it is also a manifestation of the artists’ metaphor for the human condition. It is a shining example for how a work of art in a public space can transform not only the station as a space, but also the perspectives of the people who pass by and, if only in a momentary walk from the train to the station’s exit, see themselves in the roosting birds. For a second, they realize their role in the roost that is New York City, before exiting onto Canal Street and getting on with their day. 

“MTA- Arts for Transit,” mta.info/mta/aft/index.html

Vogel, Carol, "Don't Feed the Birds", The New York Times, March 2, 2001 “Martin and Muños,” http://www.martin-munoz.com