NEW YORK / SAN FRANCISCO – In New York and San Francisco, two temporary installations have transformed public walkways with reflective materials, drawing attention to how we think about open space in dense urban areas.

Five hundred feet of golden foliage-like polished metal plates form six porous canopies above paths in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park in Teresita Fernández’s Fata Morgana. “My concept was to invert the traditional notion of outdoor sculpture by addressing all of the active walkways of the park rather than setting down a sculptural element in the park’s center,” Fernández, a New York-based artist and 2005 MacArthur Fellow, explained. Bearing the Italian name for a type of mirage that appears right above the horizon, the huge sculpture filters and reflects sunlight so that walking through the park becomes a newly dynamic experience.

While some have praised Fata Morgana since its unveiling in June, others have objected that the sculpture, which will be on display through the winter, obstructs light and restricts views. Following a supportive letter to the editor by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, senior curator at the Madison Square Park Conservancy, the New York Times published several unfavorable responses that raised questions about the work and the role of art in public spaces.

Across the country, Austin-based artist Beili Liu led a team in hot-gluing mirror Mylar to 50,000 bricks on the Portsmouth Square pedestrian bridge in San Francisco’s Chinatown this August for Sky Bridge. Liu’s meticulous installation called attention to a rare open space in the urban fabric. “The rhythmic, reflective grid will bring into it the sky and clouds above,” she said. Sky Bridge began to wear away as people walked over it throughout August, and the community members who had helped install it removed what remained at the end of the month.

Where Fata Morgana stirred debate in an area with a rich variety of resources, Sky Bridge highlighted pressing needs in an underserved community. It was greeted with curiosity and enjoyment in a neighborhood that has fewer basic services and amenities. As the finale to the Chinese Culture Foundation’s Central Subway Temporary Art Project, the project built anticipation for Chinatown’s new subway station, set to open in 2019.

“The community has fought hard for art, and for transportation in the neighborhood,” said Mabel Teng, executive director of the Chinese Culture Foundation. “The art piece not only represents the arrival of Central Subway, but the bringing of public art to Chinatown, and the coming together of the community.”