Across the street from the newly renovated Moynihan Train Hall, the comparatively drab Penn Station sits below Madison Square Garden, shepherding New Jersey commuters and long-distance train riders under the low ceilings of its underground halls. Now, two site-specific installations by Dahlia Elsayed and Saya Woolfalk bring the natural world — and warmth — into the fluorescent-lit New York City transit hub.
The two artists are the first to be included in a new public art program called Art at Amtrak, which will exhibit a rotating series of site-specific installations in the subterranean Midtown station that draws upwards of half a million passengers each day.
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Now, travelers who enter the station from Eighth Avenue descend an escalator into Dahlia Elsayed’s 360-degree intervention, a series of paintings reproduced throughout the space and collectively titled “Parallel Incantations.” Elsayed told Hyperallergic that the work, with its evocations of columns and friezes, is meant to resemble an Ancient Egyptian temple and create a circular narrative, one which viewers can choose to engage with — or disengage from — at any point in the display.
One frieze, nestled above the entrance to the men’s restroom, pays homage to Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who developed a distinct artistic style while harnessing traditional Egyptian building materials and techniques to minimize the desert heat. The adjacent frieze draws from the five-pointed stars that adorn the Temple of Hatshepsut.
Other motifs relate to the journey of the sun as it rises and falls throughout the day. For visitors, the work is meant to evoke “walking toward the horizon line on a pilgrimage toward the sun,” Elsayed said.
“I wanted it to feel like there was a portal out and a sense of light and depth in a space that’s not that high,” she continued, adding that she chose a warm color palette to offset the blue that radiates from the station’s fluorescent lights.
Past Elsayed’s installation, a kaleidoscope pattern stretches across a portion of the station’s ceiling, leading travelers into the next atrium. Once inside, visitors are surrounded by Saya Woolfalk’s Empathic Universe, a multi-year project that has landed, in part, in Penn Station. The vinyl designs wrap around the foyer’s columns and extend onto fragments of the walls.
Although a train station may seem like an unlikely place for art, Woolfalk told Hyperallergic that conceiving of the work was not a challenge. “I’ve commuted through Penn Station so many times and I’ve always thought, ‘Wow, what an underutilized space.’ And it’s beautiful — it’s got these giant columns that make you feel like you’re entering into an alternative space,” she said.
For her commission, Woolfalk strived to create a “temple to nature.” The artist rendered images of New York and New Jersey flora and fauna, including healing and medicinal plants from the Northeast. The landscapes in her work are inspired by Hudson River School paintings.
“For me that was really important, to bring the natural world into a space that we really think of as a transitional transit hub,” she said.
The exhibition was curated by Debra Simon, who has worked on public and private art installations across the country. For this first iteration of Art at Amtrak, she wanted the works to mitigate, soften, and brighten the station’s urban architecture while bringing a sense of movement. At the same time, the art had to coexist in harmony with mundane but important informational elements, such as screens announcing train departures.
Simon added that she didn’t just want conceptual art. “They’re both rooted and based on ideas,” she told Hyperallergic of Elsayed and Woolfalk’s designs.
“I wanted something that really made you understand that this, now, is a space,” Simon continued. “It was just kind of amorphous, and now since being defined by the artwork, you really have a sense that this is a place.”
Art at Amtrak is fully funded by Amtrak and is part of a recent push to improve Penn Station, which the company owns (the state of New York owns Moynihan Train Hall). Tepper said that one third of all Amtrak trips nationwide are initiated or completed in New York City.
For many travelers, entering Penn Station is a dreaded necessity, but Elsayed and Woolfalk’s installations offer a glimmer of light. Their work will be on view until September, after which a new exhibition will be installed.