Giant sculpture in Philly inspiring many interpretations

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"Big Bling," a 40-foot-tall sculpture by Martin Puryear, stands near the Schuylkill River just south of the Girard Street Bridge. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A new, very large sculpture has just risen along Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. “Big Bling ” is a 40-foot abstract piece made of bent laminated wood and chain link fence. What it represents it anybody’s guess.

The piece soars straight up at one end with a giant gold ring on top, like you might find on a pocketwatch or a doorknocker. The back of it curves back down to the ground.

“We’ve heard lots of interpretations,” said Penny Balkin-Bach, director of the Association for Public Art. “Many see it as anthropomorphic, an elephant or an Egyptian cat with an arched back. Some think it looks like a roller coaster.”

Balkin-Bach borrowed Big Bling from New York. The Madison Square Park Conservancy commissioned the piece from artist Martin Puryear, and it stood in downtown Manhattan for the better part of a year. Now it’s on the banks of the Schuylkill River for six months.

puryearArtist Martin Puryear with his sculpture, “Big Bling.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Puryear, based in New York’s Hudson Valley, is no stranger to Philadelphia. In addition to smaller pieces in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he designed “Pavilion in the Trees” in Fairmount Park in 1993.

That piece commissioned by the Association for Public Art and almost directly across the river from Big Bling, is more a piece of architecture, an elegant means of drawing park visitors into the tree canopy. By contrast, Big Bling is an sculpture meant to draw contemplation.

He has always been reluctant to explain his work; Puryear would rather viewers rely on their own imaginations. He did say, however, that he conceived this piece in reaction to Manhattan’s buildings — the Flatiron building in particular – and its residents.

“Its about urbanity, how people behave in very dense urban situations, how they yearn and struggle and stratify themselves,” said Puryear. “It has a completely different meaning here. There are no buildings, in very bucolic setting on the banks of a river. It has a very different meaning here.”

bucollicVisitors pause to contemplate “Big Bling” in its bucolic setting on the Schuylkill River. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Puryear comes out of a craft tradition, and carefully considers material in his work. Big Bling is made primarily of laminated wood, curved to shape. The pieces are joined by steel brackets, not unlike wood-frame house construction. It is sheathed in chain link, typical of temporary construction fencing. The enormous gold ring on top pops like a gigantic piece of jewelry.

Big Bling will remain beside Kelly Drive until November. The piece will never be permanently installed anywhere — it’s not deigned to withstand the elements for long periods of time — but it can be disassembled, stored, and relocated with relative ease.

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