In my essay Sculpture, Imaginary Worlds and Home Exercise Equipment I discussed the ideas of contrived human "presence" and "metaphorical worlds" as they relate to figurative sculpture. On a fundamental level the placement of a figurative sculpture within a space is to create the presence of "others".
A series of sculptures currently on display in Manhattan's Madison Square Park got me thinking about these ideas again.
The identical bronze nudes stand upright, arms at sides, looking straight ahead. The uniformity and formal stance remind one of aliens, the "little green men" type you see in old sci-fi movies. The alien-like quality is further reinforced by the placement of the sculptures. In addition to the four that are near entrances to the park, others have been placed on building rooftops in the visible area surrounding the park. The feeling conveyed is "invasion".
It's worth considering the context that these sculptures have been placed in. Madison Square, like many parks, is home to other bronze figurative works, memorials to Admiral Farragut, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Roscoe Conkling, Chester Alan Arthur and Admiral David Farragut. This is another example of figurative sculpture creating "presence". In this case it is about preserving the lives and memory of these historical figures and most importantly, the ideological significance they represent.
Parks are, after all, spaces where people go to congregate, to spend time in the presence of others even though they may not be interacting with one another. Memorial sculptures aren't placed on the sides of highways the way billboards are, so that the maximum number of people might be exposed to them. They are placed in environments where they might be considered, reflected upon and visited with.
You can see the ideological use of figurative sculpture to create a metaphorical world on the Supreme Court Building across from the park. These representatives infiltrate public space in a effort to shape reality in accord with the values they represent. They're like Jehovah Witnesses except they don't go door to door they wait for you in civic and public places.
Using figurative sculpture in this way has fallen out of favor for the most part. I like to think of it as a forgotten or abandoned technology. Emperors understood very well the importance of extending presence to preserve one's place in the world and to this day their images persist.