Neri’s stagings of the piece are frequently uncontroversial, with the emphasis on the sensory experience of the lights. In Rio de Janeiro, however, the project took on a social-activist hue. The artist proposed the location, Praça Paris, a beautiful park designed in the 1920s in the city center. Sponsors of the work, however, worried that the location was too dangerous, with numerous assaults at night, and suggested another park in a more upscale location. Neri, however, insisted the location remain the Praca Paris.
“The result was phenomenal: thousands of people came every night from every part of town and the park turned into a crowded, cheerful and safe place at night for the first time in many years,” says the artist. “People came in their taxis or fancy cars from the Zona Sul (the rich “South Side”) or with buses and trains from the Zona Norte (the poor “North Side”) while local residents just came walking, many saying they had never set foot in the park though they lived a few hundred yards away.”
The spectacle itself was breathtaking. The installation included 9,000 lights and covered a rolling parkland of nearly 10,000 square feet and including the park’s distinctive Art Deco fixtures. The LED lights, constructed from inexpensive, non-digital equipment, cast a pale glow, while the random pulses of light converged into interesting patterns over time.
Born in Naples, Neri spent his early career in New York City, and has gained fame for his large-scale sculptures and installations, which often possess a slightly abstract and somewhat threatening quality—his best-known piece is a monument-sized table and chair called The Writer. (He repeated the trope with large illuminated chairs in a 2010 installation.)
Because of its location in a contested space, a park considered too unsafe for public art, Máximo Silêncio em Paris feels like a departure from Neri’s more abstract, sensory projects. It makes a significant contribution as a demonstration of the ability of public placemaking projects to break down traditional barriers between communities. While being aesthetically approachable to many different viewers, the work held the potential for transformation.
The primary impact of Máximo Silêncio em Paris is admittedly more a result of happenstance than intention, apart from Neri’s refusal to move the work to a “safer” location. Yet this happenstance is a vital component of public-art projects—when it becomes impossible to predict the responses, critical and appreciative, of the attending audience. Other projects with a direct agenda of social transformation might have accomplished more measurable aims, yet Neri’s light display caught the viewer off guard and provided a “sneak attack” on convention.
All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.