The next installation in Madison Square Park is going to turn viewers’ worlds upside down. Artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder are constructing a walk-in camera obscura titled Topsy Turvy for their first-ever public art commission, which will open on March 1 and remain on view through April 5. The camera obscura will flip the Flatiron Building on its pointy head, projecting an inverted image of the city inside the installation.
A tool that dates back hundreds of years, the camera obscura is a marked shift from Leo Villareal’s high-tech BUCKYBALL, which is currently on view in the park. Ms. Gibson and Mr. Recoder said that they wanted to question the premium placed on hyper-high-definition images with their anachronistic installation, and chose to create a cylindrical space that will warp the projection. “There’s always this attempt to correct the image, and we were interested in the raw version of the camera obscura, which is more abstract,” said Mr. Recoder. “Why does the image have to be super crisp to the point where you forget it’s a camera obscura?”
“People might be kind of shocked to see something that’s slightly challenging,” said Ms. Gibson when asked to anticipate the reactions of an audience accustomed to flat-screen clarity. But the artists expect that any unease is likely to be accompanied by wonder. “The phenomenon itself is really fun,” Ms. Gibson said. “It’s just this low-tech thing, but it has a really big impact.” (The camera obscura has been making something of a comeback of late, figuring in shows last year by Benjamin Morgan-Cleveland at Real Fine Arts and Zoe Leonard at Murray Guy.)
The New York-based artists, whose collaborative performances and installations have appeared in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Performa 09 and Tate Modern in London, are represented by Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea. Their work frequently addresses aspects of filmmaking, and they said they see Topsy Turvy as having more to do with performance and projection than with photography (though one could install light-sensitive paper inside the piece to produce a picture, using the space as a gigantic pinhole camera).
The artists received the commission for Topsy Turvy three years ago and have been working on the project since, playing with the size, placement and look of the installation. The contrast between the stark simplicity of the camera obscura’s exterior and the dazzling optics of its interior was a consistent feature throughout its development. For the finished product, the artists are using wood and concrete.
“We wanted this to be more of an experience than just an object that people would come to see,” said Adam Glick, Martin Friedman Curator for Madison Square Park.
According to Mr. Recoder, the most challenging part of completing the project was “convincing the park that it’s a great idea.” This is the first Madison Square Park art installation that visitors must physically enter to experience, and the artists said the enclosed space presented a number of safety considerations. It was difficult “negotiating building the structure in a public space with so many regulations,” said Mr. Recoder. “I think that for us as artists who are usually very free and mobile, [it was challenging] to kind of feel those limitations.”
Mr. Glick said the park was able to find “easy ways” to ensure viewers safety (Topsy Turvy will be staffed by day and closed at night) and that he was excited the project will offer visitors a unique, intimate experience. Viewers “will go into the structure and have a solitary moment with this technology that’s been around for centuries,” he said. “They will be in a public space and looking at the world around them, but at the same time doing that from a very personal perspective.” The 10-foot-by 10-foot installation will accommodate about three to five people at a time.
While the installation will likely draw a flood of tourists to the park, the artists said they designed Topsy Turvy with locals in mind. “We were thinking a lot about giving a piece to the community,” said Mr. Recoder, who said he hoped the piece would “defamiliarize” Madison Square Park for people who “just use it to cut across back and forth.”
“I think it’s something that will really resonate with people who come to Madison Square Park every day because…they will have an opportunity to see a very familiar space with a completely different perspective,” agreed Mr. Glick.
The artists said that their installation will be the only camera obscura in the city as far as they know—at least now that they’ve deconstructed the one in their apartment. “We made our bedroom into a camera obscura for one month and we actually slept in it,” said Ms. Gibson with a laugh. “It was hard waking up in the morning.”