A giant crushed Solo cup is on display at Rockefeller Center; here’s why

It's a monument to an American icon.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Things to Do Editor
A large bronze sculpture of a Solo cup in front of Rockefeller Center.
Photograph: By Rossilynne S. Culgan | Solo Together at Rockefeller Center

The red Solo cup: A symbol of beer pong, parties, hyperconsumerism, America. The ubiquitous humble plastic cup is now cast in bronze in front of Rockefeller Center, crushed as if it endured a stomp from a frat bro's Nikes. 

The artwork is a part of an exhibit by artist Paula Crown called “Solo Together,” which alludes to the human urge to transfer energy onto inanimate objects and the environmental impacts of single-use plastic. You can see this new piece of free public art through May 21 near Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens.

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Titled "Resilience," the artist hopes the larger-than-life bronze sculpture will memorialize the collective suffering experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and offer a reminder of humankind's resilience.

A crushed Solo cup sculpture.
Photograph: Courtesy of Rockefeller Center

“It’s an icon. I think certainly everyone in America has some sort of memory or connection with the cup,” Crown said during the sculpture’s unveiling this week. “This sculpture takes the idea of a crushed cup, an object we all know and we’ve transformed in one way or another and maybe through our feelings or maybe through our energy or emotion, somehow some way we have taken this everyday object and transformed it. I like to think of this as a monument to a monument. The Solo cup has been the cup for our era. It’s been about the convenience.”

I like to think of this as a monument to a monument. The Solo cup has been the cup for our era.

In addition to the large sculpture outside, also check out the second part of the exhibition located inside Rockefeller Center's Rink Level Gallery. In that gallery, you'll find 235 sculptures of red Solo cups crushed on the floor. These crumpled cast sculptures look so realistic the urge to pick them up and drop them into a recycling bin is hard to resist.

In addition to the lifelike sculptures, photographs of the cups decorate the walls. Crown named each cup during the creation process, and an audio recording of the names plays as a soundtrack for the exhibition. The names include old soul, nerd, dad bod, pre med, football recruit, trust fund baby, problem solver, American girl, yogi, spelunker and many more. Whether the names depict the ruined cup itself or the hypothetical person who squeezed it, the artist hasn’t explicitly stated.  

Crushed red Solo cups on the floor of an art gallery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Rockefeller Center

In some ways, debuting this show amid a pandemic is quite a full circle. The disposable cup first gained popularity amid the 1918 pandemic. A century later, it's impossible to ignore the environmental impacts of single-use cups. 

Crown describes the red Solo cup as the "iconic vessel for drinking." 

The #SoloTogether sculpture.
Photograph: Courtesy of Rockefeller Center

"The whole idea of Solo Together is that we benefit from having this convenience as opposed to washing a lot of glasses but we also now have to think about the consequences writ large for all of us. And I'm not telling anyone what we should do, but I think 'Solo' and 'Together' collectively, how do we sustainably manage the vessel for all of us that creates wellness not only for us individually, but for the planet. So that's really the key with #solotogether is it reminds us that we all have a place on this planet, that we all have a mark to make. It also reminds us of the responsibility of how we connect with each other and how our marks affect each other and a sustainable environment," Crown said. 

Though the cup is iconic, Crown noted, it's also hard to recycle. Perhaps the next iteration of the iconic drinking vessel will be some sort of thermos, she posited. 

"If the project has just asked the viewer to think twice about it," she said, "then that's that's all I can do."  

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