It’s something to which most New Yorkers don’t give a second glance (or a second thought). On the south side of Union Square, in downtown Manhattan, there is a rather enigmatic well, at first it’s hard to tell what it is. Above the mundane storefronts of a Best Buy and a Duane Reade, there is a strange-looking display of numbers flickering down at you. Tourists stop to look at it and take pictures, but there’s nothing on the faade of One Union Square South to explain what you’re looking at, and residents are too busy rushing from one place to another to spare an upward glance to the display part of an unusual art installation that incorporates a very enigmatic clock, and includes a spherical moonphase.
The display of numbers is part of a large public artwork known as Metronome, which was created by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, who have collaborated on a number of public artworks for locations as diverse as the Kansas City International Airport, the Aquario Romano in Rome and the Trienalle in New Delhi, India. Metronome was installed in 1999, and it’s become a permanent if puzzling part of the downtown New York landscape.
One of its peculiarities is that at least during the summer months, when the trees on the traffic island between Broadway and Park Avenue are in full leaf, you can’t actually step back and see all three parts of the artwork; it sort of comes at you in pieces as you approach it. Metronome was not widely applauded when it was first unveiled in 1999; the New York Times called it “pretentious,” and the New York Observer opined that the work, “… fail(ed) so big that no one can do anything about it,” and called the work, ” … a site … where the death of aesthetics can be contemplated.”
The flickering display of numbers, some of which change with such rapidity that individual numerals can’t be made out, is the most conspicuous part of the installation. You can hardly stand on the street looking up at them without seeing a tourist or two stop to take a picture and scratch their heads. It’s not easy to figure out what you’re looking at in contrast to the traditional role of public clocks, Metronome seems to revel in its obscurity.
The numbers, however, do tell the time. The 15 digit LED display (there are 76,800 LEDs total) is called The Passage (okay, that’s a little pretentious) and on the left hand side, you have the time (in a 24 hour format) hours, minutes, seconds, and tenths of a second. The central digit counts off one-hundredths of a second. The digits on the right show the number of hours remaining in the day, in the same format; basically the left side counts up and the right counts down. You can think of it as time draining from right to left; a sort of horizontal digital hourglass. In the picture above, the time is 14:34:17 and 39 hundredths of a second.
The clock seems to perplex more than enlighten. Many who know it would be surprised to hear it is in fact a clock; in 2011 the New York Times reported:
“As a Long Island teenager, Noah Langer, 24, was told the numbers represented the acres of rain forest destroyed annually. Sarah Venezia, who can see the building each morning on her way to work, always assumed they stood for daily carbon emissions. And for years, friends tried to convince Bianca Rutigliano, who tends bar near Union Square, that the clock was counting down the seconds remaining until the end of the world.”
If I recall correctly there was a period in the mid-2000s when I thought it was acres of rainforest destroyed as well. Maybe there are passing viral misinformation trends about what the clock represents (something for an anthropologist to muse over).
The next section, to the right of The Passage,is a rippling wall of brick called The Vortex, which is 100 feet tall and 60 feet wide. Whatever you think of the aesthetics of the artwork (or absence thereof) it’s technically impressive there are 52,000 bricks in the wall, and they all had to be trimmed to specific shapes due to the unique length of each course of bricks.
In the upper part of The Vortex, an aperture called The Infinity yawns, and seems to emanate gold fragments which are collectively called The Source (maybe the gold flakes are bits of, to quote Dr. Who, “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey … stuff.”) Just above The Infinity is an oversized cast replica of the hand of George Washington, taken from the equestrian statue in Union Square Park across the street this is called The Relic;it’s bronze and weighs 900 pounds. A67 foot copper cone, called The Focus, runs from the bottom of The Vortex to The Infinity. Finally, a large rock called The Matter sits across the bottom half of The Vortex. The Matter is fiberglass reinforced concrete “cast from an actual rock face,” according to a statement from the artists.
With all this going on it’s perhaps no wonder that most people miss the The Phases.
Between the manic unspooling of numbers of The Passage and the operatic sturm und drang of The Vortex, the diffident Phases seems to be basically invisible. I asked around the office this is an office where there’s a bigger than usual chance of finding some awareness of idiosyncratic Manhattan public clocks and nobody knew that there was a spherical moonphase hovering four or so storys over Union Square.
It’s not particularly small five feet in diameter but it sits at a very busy corner, where Broadway crosses 14th Street and where an upward glance while crossing two lanes of especially aggressive traffic can be fatal. Maybe that’s part of the reason no one seems to notice it.
The sphere is made of spun aluminum, with black enamel on one hemisphere, and 23.75 karat gold leaf on the other. It’s driven by an electronic stepper motor that moves the globe twice per day (one of these days I may attempt to catch it in the act) through one full revolution per lunar month. The clock is controlled by an Internet time signal and I presume the same is true of the moonphase display. The spherical moonphase is not a new idea (you can see them everywhere from mantel clocks from the 1700s, to modern wristwatches by Paul Gerber and De Bethune) but they’re unusual enough to catch a curious horologist’s eye; I’ve always wondered why they’re not more common in wristwatches.
Public clocks, for most of their history, were both a visible and audible expression of authority (exactly whose authority varied from time to time and place to place but generally, it was the dyad of Church and State) and as such, were meant to be easily legible. Metronome is legible, but the way it tells time lends itself, apparently, more to flights of imagination than pragmatic time-telling. It’s ironic that by far the most conventional and easily understood part of the clock the moonphase is the part most often missed by passers-by taking it in, but if you’re in New York, it’s worth a mini-pilgrimage downtown to see it, hovering serenely above the hurly-burly of pedestrians and traffic below.