On September 8, 2018, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) opened the new WTC Cortlandt station, 17 years after the original Cortlandt Street station was damaged in the September 11 attacks. Visitors couldn’t help but notice how far the station deviated from the fairly funky norm for New York subway stations. Fewer pillars, wider vistas, gleaming white walls. And on the walls is CHORUS, an enormous work by Ann Hamilton, one of America’s major artists. It’s made from words, many words, from one national and one international document—the Declaration of Independence and the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights—built up meticulously in white-on-white mosaics. Words that inspire, but are presented in a way that supports inner peace in an emotionally charged location.
REBUILDING AND A MOVING PROPOSAL
Cortlandt Street’s reconstruction had to wait for decisions about what would be built, or rebuilt, on the ground at Ground Zero, and those contentious discussions dragged on for years before the project took its final form: five skyscrapers (four completed so far), a museum, a memorial, and a transit hub. When the Port Authority returned control of the station to the MTA in 2015, Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA’s Arts & Design Program, and her colleagues swung into action to make sure that the station got an artwork worthy of the site’s significance to New Yorkers and other Americans.
“We knew how special this site is. Arts & Design had a responsibility to create the right environment,” says Bloodworth. “We worked with a very thoughtful selection panel who were grounded in the same intent, and we selected Ann’s proposal because it was captivating.”
“WITH THIS PROJECT I WAS LINKING ABOVE AND BELOW, PRESENT AND PAST. THE STATION IS A THRESHOLD, AND SO I ASKED MYSELF: WHAT IS THE QUALITY OF EXPERIENCE THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN THAT THRESHOLD, A THRESHOLD THAT’S CONNECTING THE THRONG OF THE CITY AND THE QUIETUDE OF THE MEMORIAL?”
MAKING THE MOSAIC
To make CHORUS, Hamilton worked with artisans at Franz Mayer of Munich, a 170-year-old firm specializing in mosaic and stained glass. The company has fabricated mosaic work for public art projects worldwide, including murals for the Chicago Transit Authority, the European Monetary Institute in Frankfurt, and other MTA stations in New York.
“One of the only ways I understand things is to try to do them,” Hamilton says, “and the people at Mayer were incredibly generous. I spent a week in their studios learning about the materials, watching them work, and trying my hand at it directly.
“I’d never done a mosaic before, so it was a very new process to me, but I felt immediately a kind of kinship and excitement about it, partly because my background is in textiles. A mosaic is a large image built out of very small individual parts and that’s also true of work in cloth. And at the metaphorical level you can think about the relationship of the individual to the collective: people working together to create the social fabric. This is the aspirational language of a civic society. So it makes sense to have it made up of many little parts, because as citizens we each have to play our part.”
Hamilton chose the title CHORUS to refer to the joined “voices” of the human-rights documents she quotes from, but also for subtler “musical” reasons.
“You might stand on one side of the platform and be able to read a lot of the text on the other side,” she says, “but another experience of the piece will be…as you walk along, in the pace and rhythm of your footsteps, you’ll pick out with your eye words or phrases that strike you, and when you return to the station you’ll see them again. They’ll repeat for you like a refrain.”
“A CHORUS OF YESSES”
Hamilton uses the same metaphor for the remarkable degree of ease she and Bloodworth experienced in the approval and execution of the project. “I don’t think that, unless you’ve been involved in a process like this, you have any idea how many people need to believe in it, and say yes, and creatively solve problems to bring it in. I think that it’s here because of a chorus of yesses.”
Bloodworth credits the power of Hamilton’s concept with creating that chorus. “Everyone along the way who needed to say ‘Yes, and I will do this to make this happen,’ their hearts just fell open,” she says. “When people can get past all of the politics of creating something and all the unique challenges, they just want to make something happen, for all the right reasons. Ann’s concept did that for them.”