NEW YORK — The hottest item at the Museum of Modern Art this summer is a sculptural fantasy by Tom Otterness. The faithful may enter the museum intending to visit one of the big exhibitions or the permanent collection, but only those with tunnel vision avoid being captivated by Otterness' witty vision of a civilization in decline.
Once people catch sight of "The Tables" (in the sculpture garden, alongside the museum's windowed wall), they can't resist checking out the Lilliputian scene that unfolds before their eyes. Otterness has constructed three big picnic tables of Cor-ten steel and filled them with about 100 little figures and assorted beasts--all cast in bronze. They dramatize a three-act play of human folly--or, to pursue another metaphorical strain in the work, a three-course feast that has a piquant aftertaste.
If excited chatter and attention spans are reliable indicators, "The Tables" has it all: the charm of a world in miniature, the intrigue of a story with moral purpose and the reassurance of art that was obviously difficult to make and complex to conceive.
Visitors gather round, sit on attached benches and attempt to explain the spectacle to their children. When the garden is closed, passers-by press their faces to the glass and ask strangers, "Is it finished?" or "What does it mean?"
Installed as part of the museum's "Projects" series (to Oct. 13), "The Tables" is indeed complete. In fact, it was shown earlier this year at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in New York. The chaotic appearance of the piece is intentional, while the broken figures and elements that appear to be in the process of casting or assembly enhance the concept of frenetic, wrong-headed activity.
As for what it all means, well, how much time do you have?
Conservationists will find significance in the way a big-mouthed crab and a bigger-mouthed whale, positioned on opposite ends of the piece, are set to devour the universe of human endeavor that lies between them. A little sledgehammer has cracked the spider's shell and a gaggle of fishermen and harpooners are working on the whale, but the beleaguered beasts seem certain to prevail.
Pacifists will interpret the whale as a bomb, arising from a trap door to wipe out a distracted populace--or sinking into an abyss.
Guilty dieters and people concerned about worldwide hunger will proclaim the piece an indictment of gluttony as they point out large cups, plates and cutlery scattered around the tables.
Noting a pair of "Trojan" elephants, an outsized telephone and a big, one-armed woman who marches like a robot with a knife in her fist, other social observers will find a slew of references to technological monsters. A pair of broken eyeglasses will be thought to symbolize collective blindness.
Otterness has set out his tables in a 38-foot row--too long to take in at once. Despite the size, complexity and conflicting meanings, there is a certain logic to the organization. The table on one end, containing the whale/bomb and fishermen plus some Chinese farmers, represents "Nature." "Industry" is on the opposite end, where the giant spider looms over little roofless houses that hold another spider and a batch of miniature people.
The central event is "Urban Reality," a table divided by a trough and overhung with a cracked globe suspended on a pulley. Half of this scene seems to symbolize devastation, with little folks laboring to put a big, broken figure together. In the other half, civilization lives in a fenced plot surrounding a four-floor building. A pistol guarding the entrance of the yard points to a bridge that leads to the fractured portion of "Reality."
A brochure for the exhibition calls "The Tables" Otterness' "most ambitious undertaking to date." If the 35-year-old artist's career stopped here, he would have made his mark in the fields of contemporary sculpture and social criticism. In an astonishing display of imagination and technical accomplishment, he has tapped into genres of miniature sculpture, comic book narratives and cinematic epics while calling to mind everything from "Gulliver's Travels" to Brueghel and Bosch.
The piece may be faulted for being too confused and cartoonish, but that's also its strength. Playfulness draws people to it; multiple roads to interpretation keep them thinking.