PHILADELPHIA — Among the characters that the artist Alex Da Corte has transformed himself into for his video work and installations are Eminem, Mister Rogers and the Wicked Witch of the West. In his Technicolor universe, American cultural icons share screen time with mascots from famous commercials, and even slasher-movie psychopaths are lovingly brought to life, with hours of prosthetics and tender, surgical-like observation. It’s a big-tent worldview that he shares, curiously, with “Sesame Street,” in which monsters, kids and grouches coexist — and in which he has discovered the subject for his latest artwork.
Jim Henson and the Muppets have been an obsession of Da Corte’s for a long time. During the pandemic, though, it is Big Bird, an 8-foot-2 model of empathy and earnestness, that has been on his mind. When I found Da Corte, 40, in his Philadelphia studio, he was preparing to give Big Bird perhaps the most elevated stage of its five-decade journey through the American imagination — the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (While Big Bird traditionally takes the male pronoun, Da Corte prefers not to impose a gender.) On April 16, Big Bird will ascend to the top of the Met in the form of a sculpture. Titled “As Long as the Sun Lasts,” Da Corte’s rooftop commission takes its name from Italo Calvino’s short story about intergalactic travelers who search for a planetary home as the Sun is first forming in our galaxy.
Da Corte has approached his subject from a similarly existential perspective. On the walls of his studio, a patchwork of 3D-modeled studies and drawings of Big Bird’s head show months of deep research into the character’s form and essence: the density and directional flow of its plumage, melancholy eyes and long, conical beak that opens into a goofy pink smile. “How do you replicate that softness in a material that is not soft?,” Da Corte asked, brushing a long yellow feather pinned to the wall. And how do you capture its weight, I asked, meaning Big Bird’s cushiony, pear-shaped mass. “And the cultural gravity,” the artist responded.
Gravity is an unlikely word in connection to an oversized Muppet, but in Da Corte’s company it’s easy to feel moved by the vision of diversity and community that Big Bird and “Sesame Street” represent — especially now. The show recently added two Black Muppets to its multiracial cast, and last year Bid Bird and Elmo hosted town halls with CNN to help American families talk about racism and identity. But empathy and the celebration of difference — and the hard work those values demand — have been the show’s message all along, with Big Bird serving as perhaps its most openhearted voice.
“When I think of Carrol Spinney,” Da Corte said, referring to the actor who brought Big Bird to life for decades, “I think what a selfless labor of love — how beautiful. To do that all of your life. It’s difficult to run around with these young people and ask questions and educate them. That brings me hope. That’s something I want to be a part of.”
Da Corte’s Big Bird will be as you know it, but with a twist. The metal and fiberglass bird will appear perched on a crescent moon, like Donna Summer on the cover of her album “Four Seasons of Love” (1976), and suspended on a Calder-inspired mobile that sways and rotates in response to air currents. And Big Bird is not yellow, but blue — a reference to the show’s Brazilian version, “Vila Sésamo,” which Da Corte watched in Venezuela; this Latin American big bird is blue and called Garibaldo. (Da Corte, born in Camden, N.J., lived in Venezuela until he was 8.)
It’s also a homage to “Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird,” the 1985 film in which Big Bird is coerced by social workers into leaving Sesame Street to live with a suburban family of Dodo birds in Illinois — “his own kind.” Having nothing in common with the conventional Dodos except feathers, Big Bird flees back to New York, is kidnapped by traveling circus owners, painted blue, caged and forced to sing a sad song for cash.
“Right now Big Bird is coming across the country in this box, and it’s killing me because it’s so poetic,” Da Corte said. His studio worked with a fabricator in California, making micro adjustments to the bird’s form and detail in video calls and through mailed ephemera — feather samples, “troll blue” color swatches. The sculpture is making the journey to New York from California in the back of a truck. When it arrives on the Met rooftop, it will, figuratively speaking, be set free. Da Corte has placed a ladder in Big Bird’s hands, suggesting the opportunity for transcendence or escape. “We wanted Big Bird to have agency,” Da Corte says. “Will Big Bird stay or go?”
If Da Corte is paying homage to “Sesame Street,” he’s also views it through a critical lens. The Wicked Witch of the West, for instance, has a special place in the Sesame Street pantheon: She was excluded from it. When the actress Margaret Hamilton appeared in an episode as the witch, her character in the “Wizard of Oz,” it drew such vitriol from angry parents, afraid that the show would scare children and promote Wiccan ideas, that the episode aired just once before being taken out of circulation. So Da Corte, who reprised his role as the witch for this New York Times photo shoot, reimagined her cameo alongside Oscar the Grouch in his video “Rubber Pencil Devil,” a series of vignettes and tableaus featured in the 2019 Venice Biennale. The witch, a queer archetype and protector of queer spaces, according to the artist, is also “misunderstood — and she’s got something to say,” he added. “I appreciate her.”
Da Corte’s wide embrace of difference — and interest in dissonant juxtapositions — is matched by his almost feverish use of art historical references and touchstones. As he studied the Met’s catalog in preparation for “As Long as the Sun Lasts,” he gravitated toward the unicorn trapped by a low fence in the museum’s medieval Unicorn Tapestries — it evoked Big Bird, trapped behind bars in “Follow That Bird.” And toward Paul Klee’s painting “Miraculous Landing,” containing an ark and a ladder.
Da Corte said he thought about horizon lines in Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (around 1818), in which a romantic figure gazes out over the sublime; and Marisol’s “Self-Portrait Looking at the Last Supper” (1982-84), in which the artist placed a sculpture of herself in front of the biblical scene, like she is “looking at ecstasy,” he said.
In Da Corte’s piece, Big Bird is gazing out to the skies over Central Park, its eyes softly, inquisitively meeting a new frontier, whatever it might hold. The work is dedicated to Da Corte’s father, who came to America from Venezuela as an outsider, an immigrant, to find a new home. “There’s something beautiful about wondering what Big Bird is looking for,” Da Corte said. “Maybe the sunset.”
The various elements of the piece took shape during the height of the lockdown, and Da Corte’s experience of that is baked into this project’s DNA. He sees the work as embodying the transitional state that our culture finds itself in at the tail end of a yearlong global shock wave that promises to transform us in ways we can’t yet see. “Developing this project throughout the pandemic has been so intense, because you’re thinking of the state of the world and how heavy it is,” he said, “and how do you even exist outside of yourself to look thoughtfully at what’s happening in the moment?”
Could Big Bird offer us some deliverance — some passage to stable ground? “There’s nothing miraculous about this and there is no landing,” Da Corte said, invoking the title of the Klee painting he was drawn to. “It’s just onward. There’s much labor. There’s much thought. There’s work to be done as long as the sun lasts.”