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BTS’ Latest Power Move Is Connecting People Through Major Works of Public Art

4 minute read

Is it a web? A nest? A trap?

According to British sculptor Antony Gormley, the new public art installation at New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 3 is all of the above. “New York Clearing,” which opened to the public on Feb. 5 and will remain on display through March 27, is one of five site-specific projects helmed by K-pop supergroup BTS. Technically, it’s part of promotion for the group’s hotly-anticipated upcoming album, Map of the Soul: 7, out later in February. But the art is meant to serve a loftier purpose, too: alongside the installments in other cities — all free and open to the public — it’s intended to bring high-concept contemporary art to the masses, all in service of a message of international connection aptly called “Connect, BTS.”

At Tuesday’s press preview, under a grey sky that matched the steely hue of the twisting structure, artist Gormley, art director Daehyung Lee and Thomas Arnold of Alta Art Production spoke about the power of art to transcend cultural barriers. “Clearing” is not so much a sculpture as a field of “energy,” as Gormley described it: a single looping line of aluminum tubing — 18 kilometers worth, to be exact — spiraling in open-space, larger-than-life scribbles that reach 50 feet high, like a gargantuan metal tumbleweed. Visitors are welcome to walk through, around and under the installation, with the tubes gently undulating under pressure and contact. Gormley called out the tension inherent in the work: “The structure would not be possible were these elements not bound together and then put under stress; it’s the bending that gives it structure, but also gives it freedom.”

Artist Antony Gormley Unveils New Work As Part Of Global Art Project "Connect, BTS"
Artist Antony Gormley unveils new work as part of global art project "Connect, BTS" at Brooklyn Bridge Park on February 4, 2020 in New York City.Getty Images—2020 Roy Rochlin

“It’s important to me that this is an open work. It doesn’t have a skin,” Gormley notes. “You’re invited to meet others you may not have met before. It’s not a thing that represents something; it’s a process. The actual work begins now, and will happen when the citizens of this incredible city will come to sniff it out and see what is here.” Gormley — who concedes he didn’t know much about BTS before being tapped to participate — is best known for works like his iconic Angel of the North in the U.K., sculptures that ask people to take into account the environment and the humanity in its midst. “We have a nostalgia about identity that’s delusional,” Gormley explains to TIME; he recognizes BTS’ attempts to transcend differences of nationality and cultural background, a mission that his art has often followed as well.

The average fan of BTS, who call themselves ARMY, may not have been familiar with Gormley before now, or with the 21 other artists whose works are now on display in Berlin, London, Buenos Aires and Seoul. That’s the whole point. “The wall between the art scene and society is bigger and higher [than ever],” curator Daehyung Lee tells TIME. “So let’s break down all the silos within the art system.” Lee, who has been traveling to the openings in New York and other cities, including at Berlin’s Gropius Bau and London’s Serpentine Galleries, says managers of those sites are noticing a meaningful shift as BTS’ fans make their pilgrimages. “The demographic color to the museums has been changed — in terms of generations, in terms of cultural background,” he says. “For many of them, it’s their first encounter with serious contemporary art. That’s a big transformation.”

BTS are not strangers to making big statements. The seven-member group — RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, Jung Kook, Jin and V — just notched a record as Billboard‘s longest-reigning leaders on the Social Artist chart. They’ve broken streaming and viewership records, and performed alongside Lil Nas X at this year’s Grammys, a first for a Korean act. And in an unusual move for a K-pop group, they’ve been particularly outspoken on topics of mental health and global connection, even speaking at the U.N. This art project won’t match the millions of views garnered by their intricate YouTube music videos. But it’s a gesture at their grander ambitions, and a reminder that musical artists with mass appeal don’t have to sacrifice subtlety for popularity.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com