Tom Otterness – The Real World Sculptures

Tom Otterness – The Real World Sculptures

Tom Otterness charms with The Real World. It’s public art in the Rockefeller Park Playground of lower Manhattan. His whimsical miniature figures tell funny stories. But this brand of silly digs deep. His work surprises. That’s because Otterness explores human contradiction.


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He crafts small animals and figures in bronze. They cheer us. But there’s an undeniable current lurking too. Behind those simple smiles there’s conflict. Mini characters play a wicked game. That’s where The Real World meets the playground.



American artist Otterness brings a bit of the outside world inside the fence. The Rockefeller Park playground showcases tiny bronze animals and figures in surprising places. Behind their giddy smiles lies a mischievous motive. They crouch and pose – cute at first glance. But look close and you’ll see a bestial element too. Even the sweetest Tom Otterness sculpture’s up to mischief. Watch out kids… the real world’s all around you. It may even be out to get you. In fact, that’s the whole idea. The artist planned it this way. After all, it’s a playground art piece called The Real World. There are stories around every corner, including the entrance.


Tom Otterness - The Real World
Tom Otterness – The Real World

Tom Otterness – Dog Film History

Some of the stories seem more innocent than others. But the more you know about Tom Otterness, the less naive your experience of The Real World. That’s because when he was a young artist he created controversy. When you first enter the Rockefeller Park playground there’s a water fountain. A delightful dog sculpture stands chained to it. Anybody unfamiliar with the artist would find this adorable. Dogs are the very best people. It’s comforting to gaze at a sweet puppy while sipping a cold drink from the fountain.

But if you’ve Googled Tom Otterness… you might have a different reaction. Turns out he started out as a controversial filmmaker. More than thirty years ago, Otterness sought attention for his work. In that process, he made a short film that included a scene where Otterness shot a dog. This caused a scandal in the art world. The story tends to follow him no matter what new work he does. Of course, Otterness apologized for this film. He also points out that it was more than thirty years ago. In his public apology, Tom Otterness refers to the wretched pain people feel for our mistakes. His work tells this story too.

The dog seems to say, “I haven’t forgotten either,” in the voice of Tom Otterness. This speaks to a belief that it’s often hardest to forgive ourselves for our misdeeds. After all, artists especially hold themselves to a high standard. It takes tremendous self discipline and resilience to make a living as an artist. Not everybody has this level of self control. In fact, it’s often coupled with a strong conscience. Imagine how he felt, making the dog sculpture. Its placement right at the playground entrance also points out that this dog matters. He doesn’t matter only to us, the viewer. But also his creator.


Tom Otterness - The Real World - Dog Sculpture
Tom Otterness – The Real World

Beasts of Tom Otterness – The Real World

Much like in his art career, the dog’s only the beginning of The Real World Tom Otterness art piece. There are stories galore. Cuteness reigns. But there’s dark drama skulking as well. In some cases it’s subtle. For instance, Otterness tucks tiny figures inside pockets of larger figures. A naked couple might be getting it on inside a sculptural crevice. But it’s debatable. They’re only half visible. In another arguable example, nude women crouch like a coven in the palm of a clenched fist. Can this be a naked knitting circle? Sure. It’s unlikely, though.

In fact, once you see the cats, it seems clear that the couple must be in flagrante delicto. The ladies must be communing with Lucifer himself… Because the cat sculpture suffers tremendous punishment. Tiny figures reprimand Ms. Kitty. Even creepier, monstrous figures, half human/half rat or frog, bind her legs. The mini monstros carry the cat sculpture, gagged and bound. They creep along the Otterness penny path, a naughty cat pressing into their bronze backs. It’s impossible to know the cat’s guilt or innocence. We must also wonder at the mere existence of these little monsters.


Monsters of The Tom Otterness Real World

They’re not only monsters, combining features of human and animal form. Look close. The creatures transporting the cat are also authority figures. The half rat wears a police uniform, even the hat. His holstered gun juts out with bravado. So, although bent under the burdensome cat weight – he’s still a powerful monster. The frog creature wears a topcoat and fancy top hat. These also signify dominance.

So, Tom Otterness hints at the story behind this mysterious scenario. Ms. Kitty got caught. She’s thus held accountable. Was she a bad kitty or framed? It’s tough to say. The lady figure lecturing on her shoulder points to a guilty cat. But a male counterpart perches pouting on a nearby pile of pennies. Is this a cat conspiracy? Did they pay the cops to tie up Ms. Kitty? The Real World art piece speaks to the real world with this vagary. The truth isn’t simple. In fact, both possibilities could be true. She could be a naughty kitty. They also could have paid the police to take her away. Otterness thus brings the complexity of the adult world into this playspace with his artwork.


The Real World Cats - Tom Otterness -
Tom Otterness – The Real World

Tom Otterness Dog Shouts

Like the world outside the playground, The Real World art piece contains multitudes. This phrase refers to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The poem speaks to how we’re all full of surprises. People are quirky. We do unexpected things. But that’s also the good stuff of humanity. Otherwise the world would bore us. Let the children play. Love them for their foibles as much as their A+ projects. This concept shines through these art pieces.

One could argue that Tom Otterness’s history with his dog film may not matter anymore. It was so long ago. But the presence of the dog sculpture at the playground entrance seems to shout about it. We all have a history. Our experiences may be fraught. One may even have been as naughty as Ms. Kitty – or worse. It’s no matter now. Because wisdom arises from all experience. We pay our debts and forge forth. Face the music and then make more. That kind of wisdom informs artwork at this level. It takes a certain brilliance to render playful whimsy in tandem with dark conflicts.