On Manhattan’s High Line, Experimentation Leads to a Whirling, Whizzing, Whooshing Sculpture
Rising from a patch of spiny ornamental grass on New York’s High Line park, a 9-foot-tall tornado spins in place, whirling with the fierce, relentless energy of a speeding locomotive—or, to use an apt Looney Toons analogy, the Tasmanian Devil. The arresting apparition? “Windy”, a new (and first-ever) sculpture by the Moroccan-born, New York–based artist Meriem Bennani, installed near West 23rd Street through May 2023. Best-known for her ambitious, often absurd videos, Bennani deftly mixes references from reality TV, cartoons, documentaries, and social media to tell stories about human behavior online and off. (Her viral video series, “2 Lizards” (2020), made with filmmaker Orian Barki and launched on Instagram at the start of the pandemic, depicted the bewildering experience of isolation with uncanny precision.)
“Windy,” Bennani’s first public artwork and stand-alone sculpture without a video component, allowed her to experiment with a new set of conceptual, material, and technical challenges. She programmed a set of 10 electric bike motors to power different sections of the kinetic form, made from some 200 discs of lightweight UV- and waterproof foam, allowing each area to revolve at different speeds and sequences. Both timeless and timely, “Windy” references, through its gyrations, the busy activity on Manhattan’s crowded sidewalks (including the High Line, which saw an estimated 8 million visitors in 2019) and the visual simulation felt upon returning to life after quarantine. The sculpture commands both a sense of wonder and anxiety as it spins. The idea was not necessarily one “of representing a tornado,” Bennani says, “but of making a tornado.”
“I hope they don’t try to touch it,” she says with a laugh, of onlookers and passersby, before confirming that there are indeed motion sensors installed to stop it.
The project is the latest effort by Audemars Piguet Contemporary, an art initiative of the master Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, which co-curated and co-commissioned “Windy” with High Line Art. “We wanted to support a moment in Meriem’s career as she explores the notion of sculpture,” says Audrey Teichmann, one of the organization’s in-house curators, noting that she and her team worked closely with Bennani throughout the project’s development. “The idea was to accompany a process.” Founded in 2012, Audemars Piguet Contemporary gives artists the time, funding, and help to manufacture and exhibit a work that represents a departure from their practice, resulting in forward-thinking commissions that participants may not have realized otherwise.
To date, Audemars Piguet Contemporary has worked with 20 artists and mounted 57 exhibitions of its commissioned pieces around the globe. These include “The Art of Listening: Under Water,” an immersive site-specific audio composition by sound artist Jana Winderen shown during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019 (an iteration of the project was presented at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts earlier this year); “Isle of Instability,” a record of multimedia artist Cao Fei’s daily activities during Beijing’s Covid-19 lockdowns that premiered at Shanghai’s West Bund Art & Design fair in 2020; and “Wild Constellations” a sonic artwork embedded in a wall of live moss created by artist Alexandre Joly and presented at the Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong in 2015. Joly recorded the natural and industrial sounds for his installation—including rustling tree leaves, cracking ice, and the ticking of a watch—in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux and inside Audemars Piguet’s manufacture facility in the nearby village of Le Brassus, where the watchmaker was founded in 1875.
Like its parent company’s timepieces, Audemars Piguet Contemporary’s approach to its work stems from a commitment to demonstrating how works of art are about more than what meets the eye, and can act as vessels for ideas, craftsmanship, and imagination. “Contemporary art goes beyond first impressions,” Teichmann says, “and artists offer a critical perspective. We share a commitment with them to think radically and to explore the avant-garde.” Helping realize a twirling twister on the High Line certainly fits the bill. Embodying the organization’s creativity-let-loose ethos, Bennani’s sculpture also certainly makes for a fitting metaphor.