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This September, when strollers along New York’s Fifth Avenue reach the southeast corner of Central Park, at 60th Street, they will come across a ruined monument. The glass-reinforced concrete sculpture, brand-new and all of a piece despite its jumbled and scattered appearance, is called The Happy Prince and pays homage to Oscar Wilde’s well-loved tale of that name. The sculptor is British artist Ryan Gander; the commission came from the Public Art Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting artworks in public spaces.

Wilde’s story tells of a beautiful and much-admired statue called The Happy Prince that stands “high above the city, on a tall column” and is “gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold.” “For eyes,” says Wilde, “he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.” As the Public Art Fund’s press release reminds us, from his high position,

the Prince . . . observes the daily suffering of his city’s poor. One afternoon, he befriends a swallow, who he convinces to strip the jewels and gold from his body to distribute to the people, alleviating their misery. After helping the Prince, the swallow, who has grown increasingly cold with the onset of winter, dies at the Prince’s feet, and the Prince, who is no longer covered in riches, is toppled from his place of honor by the Town Councillors who no longer deem him a fitting and beautiful statue for their town square.

Again according to the press release,

In the story, the image of the destroyed monument is never described but is left to the imagination; Gander’s The Happy Prince captures the moment as a sculpture . . . . elements of the original statue remain visible: the Prince’s heart, sword, and helmet, as well as the body of the dead swallow. As a reminder of the statue’s former grandeur, the base of the column is still visible and protrudes through the surrounding debris. However . . . Gander’s work . . . is not a literal illustration of Wilde’s story so much as a representation of the ruin as an idea . . . . The artist presents not a ruin but a sculpture of a ruin.

Thus, The Happy Prince , while evoking Wilde’s story, is also both a site-specific and season-specific work that is meant, in the words of the commissioning body, to
[resonate] with the surrounding civic monuments; it also invites comparisons between the inequalities of wealth in the gilded age of Wilde’s fictional city and modern-day New York. If the writer’s parable takes up the themes of privilege and charity, the artist overlays those with questions about the nature of public art and our contemporary experience of the monument.

At the end of Wilde’s tale, the broken heart of The Happy Prince is thrown on a dust-heap with the body of the dead sparrow. Then a new voice is heard:
“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.

“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold The Happy Prince shall praise me.”

The Happy Prince will stand in Doris C. Freedman Plaza, at the southeast entrance to Central Park, from September 15, 2010, until April 10, 2011, as summer gives way to fall and winter and, in due course, to spring.

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