Taking Big Bird to new heights
Among the characters that 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 shows 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, New Jersey, lived in Venezuela until he was 8.)
It’s also an 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.
VR Sunil Gohil