For most New Yorkers, Times Square is usually a challenge. Walking through the crowds of tourists, vendors, break dance crews, and multiple Elmos and Iron Mans can be daunting if you’re just trying to work.
But it’s also disturbing to see the area nearly being cleaned up, as it was last year during the pandemic. As pedestrians slowly begin to fill the area again, a monument has been erected to those who experienced it all.
“A fountain for survivors,” Created by Pamela Council, an artist whose works are steeped in black American culture, an 18-foot fountain embellished with more than 350,000 acrylic nails is on display in Times Square through December 8.
The hundreds of thousands of acrylic nails used for the structure range in size from small toenail length to rectangular claw. Some are painted light pink with a white tip. Some are magenta, gold and yellow. Others are intoxicated with rhinestones and crystals. A few have hand-painted designs from local nail technicians.
Many are fanned out over the fountain’s shield, which forms a round, spherical shape around it, resembling a 3D rendering of an organ from an anatomy book. Pink and magenta clouds are painted on the inside of the structure and the ceiling is tufted with a silk fabric, a gold lamp holding it together in the center.
The fountain at the center of it all holds 100 gallons of water, which trickles down three levels into a large fuchsia cauldron-like bowl.
As you walk into the artwork, the loud music of the dance crews, the buzz of the crowd and the bright lights of the billboards seem to fade. Amid the chaos of Times Square, the space is serene and dreamy, the sound of water calming the senses.
“The fingernails become this kind of armor and this protective layer of style, between the buzzing Times Square crowd and people who frequent this intimate space,” said Ms Council, who uses pronouns, in a recent interview.
The nails also symbolize self-expression and the small acts of personal maintenance that many people rely on – or ritualize – to sustain on a daily basis.
“We build monuments to winning wars and tragedies, but I need a monument to preserve,” said Ms Council. “For some people, that’s monumental.”
More than 300,000 people walked through Times Square on any given day, according to the Times Square District Management Association. But last year, the number of pedestrians dropped to less than 50,000 people a day.
“There are fewer people moving in Times Square, but the people that are are working people, they’re the people who keep things going, they’re the essential workers that we’ve been talking about for the past year and a half,” said Ms. Council.
With 64 percent of New Yorkers fully vaccinated, the city is recovering. In September, nearly 219,000 people were back in Times Square. The fountain was unveiled last week in Duffy Square, a small plaza in Times Square’s northernmost triangle.
“Survival felt like a very universally urgent idea that people from all walks of life and experiences could identify with at this time,” said Jean Cooney, the director of Times Square Arts, the public arts division of the Times Square Alliance and the organization that ordered the work, “whether that idea of survival for them was related to the pandemic or something personal.”
It was Ms. Council’s survival lens, punctuated by joy and sombre humor, which Ms Cooney believes could give the area much-needed vibrancy.
On a recent weekend, Michael Vanfossen, 40, and his wife stopped by to view the fountain. “We thought it was an Easter egg,” says Mr Vanfossen. “But up close, it’s impressive because it looks like the inside of an ear.”
He added: “My wife said it looked like a uterus or a fallopian tube. And it looks feminine and with all the nails it makes sense.”
Clovice Holt, 30, another spectator (and a fellow artist), said, “It’s 100 percent black and 100 percent female.” He added: “It’s black, it’s New York, it’s exactly what we needed.”
According to a March 2020 report by the New York City Comptroller, 75 percent of all frontline workers at the start of the pandemic were people of color. More than 60 percent were women. That reality contributed to higher death rates from Covid-19 among people of color and exacerbated already persistent economic inequalities.
Valerie Wilson, the director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and economics, commented on the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on black and brown communities in the city: “I think we are now in a time where there is a greater recognition of the trauma caused by racism and racial inequality,” said Ms Wilson. “That’s important to counter the idea that black people are just resilient. You do what you have to do, but what does it cost?”
The Madame Council Fountain is an offering to those survivors and more generally to all survivors. “Fountains allow you to do these sacrifices and initiations on a societal scale,” they said.
Mrs. Council has worked with acrylic nails before. In 2012, they created a sculpture called “Flo Jo World Record Nails” that used 2,000 acrylic nails to form a replica of a track track in honor of the 200-foot track where track and field athlete Florence Griffith Joyner made history.
Mrs. Council used the same materials for ‘A Fountain for Survivors’, but this time the artist does not celebrate an individual achievement, but offers everyone in the city a moment of tranquility.
“Their fountain is something completely different and totally unexpected. At the same time, they’re using these materials that you’ve definitely seen before,’ Ms Cooney said of Ms Council. “We all understand acrylic nails, but I’ve never seen 400,000 in beautiful and vibrant mosaics. It’s kind of something incredibly accessible and familiar, but turned into something completely spectacular and unexpected.”
Council’s choice of nails fits within her broader exploration in her artistic works in the juxtaposition between the flashy style of black beauty and “people wanting to see the reproduction of the black death,” they said.
“People like Blackness’s adornment and culture more than we do,” she added.
Ms Council uses the term “Blaxidermy” – a combination of the term Blaxploitation and taxidermy – as a label for the art they produce in this vein. (In 2008, Ms. Council started a Tumblr account of the same name.)
For example, in 2018, the artist created “Red Drink: A BLAXIDERMY Juneteenth Offering”, a concrete fountain in the shape of a palm tree, with a wide base that held 800 gallons of Big Red soda intended to represent sugar, as well as human blood. In 2019 they created “BLAXIDERMY Pink”, an installation with chocolate fondue fountains bubbling with Lusters Pink Lotion.
The Times Square fountain is its own social commentary, but it also doubles as a gift. Not for the tourists who walk through Times Square and see the fountain – although Mrs Council appreciates them – but for New Yorkers.
“There’s just a difference between visiting New York and being a New Yorker,” Ms Council said. “You have to be there.”