WILLIAMSBURG — Army veteran Eddie Algarin was driving past McCarren Park in his work van Tuesday when a sculpture stopped him in his tracks: a military-uniformed skeleton sprawled out in a crying woman's arms, with an American flag as a backdrop.
"Seeing a soldier displayed like this makes me very sad," said Algarin, 53, who was wearing a United States baseball hat as he looked at the unusual display. "I don't know what to make of it."
The provocative installation has been on the corner of Bedford Avenue and North 12th Street for the past few weeks, some neighbors said — despite the Parks Department's claim that the artwork is illegal. The sculpture, which is perched atop a closed casket, measures roughly 10 feet high.
"The display was not permitted," a spokeswoman for the agency said in an email Tuesday about the anonymous art piece.
The spokeswoman did not say whether Parks had plans to remove the sculpture, which resembles the Christian "Pieta" scene of Mary holding Jesus after his death on the cross, depicted most famously by Michelangelo in his renowned 1400s sculpture at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City.
The figures are enclosed by a white picket fence and accompanied by a military helicopter figurine and anti-war buttons. Two posters with photos of thousands of people who appear to be members of the military hang on either side of the statues.
The display's lack of name, written explanation or visible artist signature have drawn mixed reactions from locals, from praise to disdain.
One local resident, Justin DeLillo, took issue with the sculpture's placement on public land.
"What is this about?" he wrote on the Facebook page Friends and Families of McCarren Park. "I don't think park space should be used for this, not right."
Meanwhile Algarin, who said he was stationed at Fort Bennington, Texas, for six years, said the piece confused and saddened him, but he respected it.
"It's much worse over there, but this brings things close to home," he said, referring to the war in Afghanistan.
"Even people who aren't religious tend to look at God at that one moment before they die...I'm seeing a saint," he said of the soldier.
Arvia Sarkela, a philosophy scholar at Columbia University visiting from Frankfurt, said he took no personal offense and that the work poignantly criticized the blend of religion and government in the United States.
"It puts the Christian religion over the American flag ... and this is one of the first countries with a separation of church and state," Sarkela, 28, said of the paradox. "This could offend religious people and secular people."
But one "moderately patriotic" resident who strolled on Bedford Avenue Tuesday said he was unfazed by the sculpture's blatant message about unjust suffering.
"They're trying to make a statement about the American war machine," said Cody, 35, who declined to give his last name. "But if they really wanted to touch a nerve with me, they didn't succeed because it's not subtle enough."