This past Thursday, the Municipal Arts Society of New York presented brothers Doug and Mike Starn with its Brendan Gill Award for their recently completed glass installation that adorns 250 feet of walls, or almost the entire interior of a Manhattan subway station. The work, entitled See it split, see it change (2005–2008), engages passengers entering or exiting the South Ferry Terminal station with images of a historic New York City map; turning leaves; and the intertwining, sinewy silhouettes of tree branches.
The Starns designed an intricate, 20-foot-wide marble mosaic based on a map commissioned by the United States Census Bureau in 1886 that integrated a topographic map drawn in 1640 with a street plan from the Battery to 155th Street. The map orients passengers to the island of Manhattan and its natural topogoraphy which predates the new layers of architecture. A large autumn leaf image, rendered in fused glass, echoes the form of the map and reminds of the natural cycles of decay.
One level down, passengers are enveloped in the intertwining sinewy branches of starkly silhouetted trees, some taller than 10-feet. Echoing the intricate network of tunnels that run under the city, the branches are also a reference to the interconnectedness of human experience and the many intersecting lives in the largest city in the United States.
In a statement provided by the artists, the work is said to “reference the artists’ commentary on the subway station as a place of passage where meanings and people remain in a constant state of flux, and influence passengers to consider elements of time, space, the natural, and manmade.”
Glass was chosen for its uniquely durable properties, as well as its ability to reflect light, and capture the reflection of passers by who can catch sight of themselves against the images of the trees. In total, 425 individual glass panels measuring 14 by 28 inches, were fabricated by Franz Mayer of Munich. In addition to the glass and marble, the installation also features a Starn-designed stainless steel fence which picks up the tree motif and controls access to the station.
Completed in March 2009, See it split, see it change is the latest in over 200 site-specific installations commissioned by the MTA Arts for Transit’s Permanent Art Program. The Starn project is just the newest in a long list that includes works by Roy Lichtenstein, Elizabeth Murray, Romare Bearden, Vito Acconci, Tom Otterness, Maya Lin, Jacob Lawrence, and Robert Wilson, among others.