It’s hard to avoid talking pricing when talking about the Oculus, the white spine-like structure that rises over the PATH train at Ground Zero.
It cost approximately $4 billion in public funding. That didn’t do much to benefit the commuting experience beyond putting a mall at one end of it. Money well spent?
That’s why it’s also hard to ignore the irony of the exhibit that opened under the spine of the Oculus this week: “Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.” The show is essentially a display of life-size photos of the Italian masterpiece, yours to peruse for $20 a pop, plus a $1 service charge. Like the Oculus itself, it’s nice to look at, but worth the price of admission?
Not something you see every day
Michelangelo’s figures make for an intriguing, if somewhat puzzling, sight in the Westfield mall.
Visitors can don headphones (for an additional fee) to get an art history lesson and wander through 34 displays, including famous frescoes like “The Creation of Adam,” where God’s finger reaches towards the first man.
The security presence is less intense than in the Vatican, where guards do things like intone “silencio” and “shhhhhhh.” And the images are brought down to earth for closer viewing: no craning your neck at the ceiling because the Los Angeles-based entertainment company who put up the show along with Westfield built ground-level displays as opposed to a dark, low roof.
More monumental is the scale copy of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement,” which decorates the altar wall in Vatican City. It’s hung, minus the altar, in the Oculus, the artwork’s 390 characters ascending to heaven or, as the audio guide says, “descending plaintively towards damnation.” Those anguished figures on the way down are right at eye level and easily viewable (perhaps recognizable) by commuters passing through during rush hour.
Those commuters, in fact, can actually see just about the whole exhibit, large wording next to pictures included, without paying the entrance fee. Plenty of passersby were doing just that on Wednesday, leaning over the thin wire that separates the exhibit from the pathway between subways, PATH train, and the mall.
You get what you pay for?
Given the open viewing, it would be silly to spend the money for the right to be inside (paying guests were almost outnumbered by security guards during Wednesday’s visit).
New Yorkers might withhold their dollars on principle, too, given that what seems like a public exhibit actually is entirely run by Westfield, the mall owner, who paid $1.4 billion for perpetual retail rights in and around the Oculus. This is different from how it works in Grand Central Terminal, for example, where retail rental revenue flows to the MTA, along with fees for events in the terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall.
Port Authority media relations deputy director Steve Coleman says Westfield gets permission for exhibits like this with the Port Authority, a dual-state agency that runs the train facility, to make sure traffic isn’t impeded. But the lump fee gave Westfield the right to do what it wants.
It also meant the Oculus itself has become populated by stores the likes of Montblanc, Smythson and other high-end establishments.
Those stores surround the open rib-cage of the Oculus, where you might otherwise solemnly ponder the sight of the Freedom Tower through the building’s architecturally impressive skylight.
But that center of the building is prime real estate, and has already been home to exhibits such as a MAC cosmetics collaboration with the Nutcracker; a Stella Artois “Water Day” installation; and an Apple Music concert to go along with the Apple Store upstairs.
You get what you pay for, perhaps. At least with the Michelangelo you can snatch a refracted glimpse of the master’s muscular art for free. He, used to patrons, probably won’t mind.