The other day I saw a giant bird perching on a sliver of crescent moon. It was clutching a comically short ladder, and the whole scene — an installation by the conceptual artist and designer of immersive environments Alex Da Corte — was on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum, tucked into a corner of one of New York City’s most spectacular patios.
The piece instantly brought me back to my favorite Italo Calvino short story, “The Distance of the Moon,” about the good old days when Earth and its moon were almost close enough to kiss. Rowing out to the point of closest approach, the narrator and his friends would erect a ladder and leap across to the lunar surface, where they frolicked and gathered cheese.
For his 2021 Roof Garden Commission, which opens Friday, Da Corte taps into a similar vein of straight-faced irony. The bird in “As Long as the Sun Lasts” — its title is borrowed from another Calvino story — is a full-size, custom-made, blue but otherwise unmistakable Big Bird, the beloved Sesame Street denizen. Gazing wistfully over the oligarch aeries south of Central Park, it looks torn, unsure whether to climb back down to earth or fly away forever.
Fabricated from stainless steel and covered with 7,000 hand-placed aluminum feathers, the Bird swings gently from one end of a long pole fixed 20-odd feet off the floor. (Its ladder is definitely too short.) Attached to the pole’s other end are five brightly colored metal discs, a nod to Alexander Calder’s floating mobiles, or at least to their mass-market nursery knockoffs. The installation’s base, three interlocking stainless-steel blocks with rounded corners, like modular plastic, are also painted Calder Red.
The Met Roof Commission isn’t easy to pull off. The artist competes not only with the breathtaking vista of Central Park, framed by a forest of Manhattan luxury towers, but also with the aura of the treasure house downstairs. Whatever the artist chooses to mount will promptly be Instagrammed to death in an endless summer bacchanal of selfies. So a winsome surefire crowd-pleaser like this, which turns gentle circles without ever getting anywhere, may simply be Da Corte’s satirical, if not especially biting, response to the assignment: Why try to get somewhere? Why not just give people what they want?
But that wouldn’t account for its undercurrent of melancholy, the pathos of an innocent creature in the grips of a big decision. Da Corte has spent his artistic career being other people — dressing up as the rapper Eminem, even adapting Alexander Calder’s signature on this sculpture’s base — and constructing elaborate installations that give you the sense of having wandered into some other world, brightly colored but eerily unrooted.
(The museum received informal permission for the project from the Calder Foundation and Sesame Street.)
Born in New Jersey, he spent his early childhood in Venezuela, where he watched a Brazilian version of “Sesame Street” called “Vila Sésamo.” That show’s Big Bird equivalent, Garibaldo, is blue. But the characters don’t much resemble each other — if you can overlook their both being anthropomorphic birds — and this Bird’s blue isn’t even the same as Garibaldo’s. What this Bird’s tint really evokes, whether or not you’ve ever seen Garibaldo, is a confused memory, or “jamais vu” — déjà vu’s opposite, the feeling that something familiar is suddenly strange.
Jamais vu must have been the artist’s experience of moving to the United States as an 8-year-old. It’s certainly been unremitting for everyone this past year, as ordinary life became suddenly impossible and bizarre new habits — wiping down groceries, wearing a mask, or two — cycled in and out of practice. I suspect that most visitors at the Cantor Roof Garden will be asking themselves whether this is really what the place was like before the pandemic. (The answer is, not exactly: There used to be a roof garden bar.)
A blue Big Bird also brings to mind a disturbing scene in the 1985 children’s movie “Follow That Bird,” starring Sesame Street characters and puppets. Having captured, caged, and painted him the color of melancholy, two carnival grifters force Big Bird to perform a song called “I’m So Blue” — and then rake in the cash. As a metaphor for the artist’s relationship to institutions — with Da Corte, for example, as the sunshiny innocent, and the Met as his captor — the reference would be too easy. But as a picture of the childish innocence that we all learn to keep captive and subject to the crass demands of adult life, it’s kind of heartbreaking.
Everything about the piece — from the character itself to the graphic shapes and colors of the Calder-like mobile and the preschool play-set base — signifies whimsy. But recognizing whimsy, as a viewer, isn’t the same as feeling whimsical. In fact, it can sometimes feel like the opposite, a regret-saturated reminder that our days of whimsy are behind us. We have bills to pay, products to sell, wars to wage, statements to make, reviews to write. It isn’t our fault we can no longer reach the moon. Our ladders are simply too short.
The truth is that “As Long as the Sun Lasts” appealed to me in a visceral way I felt obliged to be suspicious of. Seeing a well-known children’s character in a space still dedicated to old-fashioned ideas of high culture made me feel as if someone was getting away with something. But when the breeze started up and Big Bird began to swing, it was surprisingly thrilling. I wanted a ride, myself. I even reached up to touch Big Bird’s foot. It was a few inches out of reach.
Alex Da Corte: As Long as the Sun Lasts
April 16 through Oct. 31, Cantor Roof Garden, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org