Times Square sculpture mixes Valentine with protest

Created by a Canadian-led design team, the winning sculpture in this year's annual Valentine-themed competition in Times Square is both a tribute to the millions of immigrants who make up the city and a message of protest in turbulent times.

'We Were Strangers Once Too' created by Canadian-led design team is an ode to New York City's immigrants

Thirty-three metal poles come together visually to form a heart in the sculpture titled We Were Strangers Once Too. Each pole represents the countries that make up New York City's immigrant population (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

In the middle of New York City's Times Square, a new sculpture is both a Valentine to the city's diversity and a message of protest in turbulent times.

Thirty-three metal rods rise up on a platform in Duffy Square, the northern triangle of Times Square. Each is covered with red or pink bands and the name of a country. The numbers below each country indicate where the more than three million immigrants who live in the city came from.

From the side, the rods look like a metallic forest, but the sculpture's true effect comes when passersby stand directly in front, and the separate rods visually come together to form a heart. 

Each pole has multiple countries listed, along with the population of foreign-born New York City residents. Darker colours represent declining populations. Lighter hues represent increasing groups. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

"For us, the underlying metaphor is an easy one: the heart of the city is immigrants. More people live in this city that are foreign-born than any other city in the world," said Canadian Jer Thorp. He runs the artist's collective called The Office for Creative Research which created the sculpture.

The piece is titled We Were Once Strangers Too, a phrase taken from a 2014 immigration speech by former President Barack Obama. Darker tones represent populations that are decreasing, lighter hues show countries from which immigration is increasing.

The work was conceived as part of an annual competition to create a Valentine-themed sculpture for Times Square.

Thorp himself is a Vancouver native who came to the U.S. in 2010. He says he and the artists who created the sculpture tried to present the facts without editorializing, but he said it's clear the numbers themselves speak volumes. 

Canadian data artist Jer Thorp heads the artists' collective known as The Office For Creative Research, which created the sculpture as part of a Valentine-themed competition by Times Square. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

"New Yorkers as a whole have really rejected a lot of these policies that have been pushed forward by the current administration, and I think one of the reasons for that is we live in it everyday, we live in a diverse community everyday, we know how important it is," Thorp said.

Times Square officials said the piece is meant to spark debate.

"Part of the role of art is to encourage conversation and discussion, and part of what Times Square is — it reflects whatever the spirit of the time is," said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

"The conversation, and particularly the spirit of New York right now, is one that's supporting the diversity and richness of this city and this nation. Other people may disagree with that, and there can be a conversation, it's a public square," Tompkins said.

While Times Square is known as the crossroads of the world, Tompkins says it's also where Americans from across the country interact. He says it's the best place for New Yorkers to meet someone who disagrees with their point of view.

"Who knows? Maybe you'll have a Republican and a Democrat look at this and start a conversation. Wouldn't that be great?"

British tourist Fiona Potts takes a selfie with her husband amid the metal poles that make up the sculpture. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

Fiona Potts and her husband were visiting from the U.K., and as she moved through the poles, examining the various statistics, the impact was immediate.

"I find it a very bizarre (political) climate at the moment, the whole world, Brexit as well, so for me, yes, diversity and solidarity, it's got to be that going forward," she said.

What's in your heart

As he found the pole with his native Colombia, Nicolay Espitia smiled and posed for a photo. He said the sculpture's message is right for the times.

"It's really important for people to see it doesn't matter the colour, it doesn't matter the accent, it matters what's in your heart," he said.

That impact, and the ability to generate debate is Thorp's ultimate hope for the sculpture.

"I want to change one-by-one the visitors to this piece. I want to get them thinking a little bit differently. It happens when they're in the sculpture. It happens when they see the heart. It happens when they walk away."