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Prison Cell Replica is Latest Public Art Headed to SoHo

By Andrea Swalec | October 5, 2012 6:48am

SOHO — The posh shops and trendy restaurants of SoHo will soon get a new neighbor: a simulated Rikers Island jail cell.

A 9-foot-tall triangular cell that can fit three people inside will be installed in Petrosino Square starting Oct. 15, a Parks Department representative announced at a community meeting Wednesday night held at the New York City Fire Museum.

Artist Jessica Feldman, who created the piece with designer Steven Gertner, said the concrete cell that will be on display through Nov. 25 is an interpretation of the living conditions of inmates and patients past and present on the islands that surround Manhattan — Rikers Island, Governors Island, Randalls Island, Wards Island and Roosevelt Island.

"These practices of keeping certain people on the periphery — we don't think about what that means," she said. "I want people to have a sympathetic experience."

The cell named "The Glass Sea" will be 9 feet tall at its highest point, 5 feet tall at its lowest and about 15 feet wide. A video display inside will play a looped film that tries to capture the daily life of an inmate.

"It's a lot of looking out the window — looking, waiting, reading," said Feldman, a 33-year-old Harlem resident. "It's meditative."

Feldman said she worked on the cell during a six-month residency on Governors Island sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, when she researched and visited the islands and interviewed former inmates at Rikers Island.

"These interviews, and the remarkable inaccessibility of these places and the people in them, hugely informed my video," she said.

Some people who live near the triangular park located at the intersection of Spring Street, Lafayette Street and Cleveland Place weren't convinced that a jail cell belonged in their neighborhood. They asked Parks Department public art coordinator Jennifer Lantzas why the latest selection from the Art in the Parks program didn't reference the neighborhood.

"We felt that being Downtown and fairly close to the waterfronts themselves, [the piece] worked well with the space," Lantzas replied.

This public art installation follows "Survival of Serena," the ultra-lifelike sculpture of a tranquil woman wearing a pink bathing cap, which was on display in the same location May through September.

The title "The Glass Sea" is borrowed from the name for the hills and moat that surround Fort Jay on Governors Island and give the holders of the fort a tactical advantage, Feldman explains on her website.

"The Glass Sea" will be open every day from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 25 through Nov. 25, according to the Parks Department.