POSTCARD FROM NEW YORK:
WARM UP AT PS1
CONTEMPORARY ART CENTER
22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, NY
Ten minutes from midtown Manhattan, the 7 subway train screeches out of the tunnel under the East River and climbs onto elevated tracks, where it curls past vivid graffiti and the whitewashed bulk of P.S.1, the anchor of Long Island City’s burgeoning art scene. This riverside chunk of suburban Queens, scruffy, scrappy, low-rise and low(ish)-rent, is being called the new Williamsburg, and is getting the luxury loft apartments to prove it. But skyscraper Manhattan this isn’t: the tallest building is a gleaming Citibank tower looming over the gallery. Every Saturday afternoon in summer hundreds of visitors clank down the iron steps of the 45 Road/Courthouse Square station for the gallery’s Warm Up party, a ten-year institution that for ten bucks offers the chance to visit the gallery, drink beer, and dance until sundown in its walled courtyard. Get there early and there’s plenty of space to wander under the red flapping petals of this year’s architect-designed installation, Liquid Sky by Ball-Nogues, which periodically lives up to its name by sprinkling water onto the hammocks stretched below.
The ‘P.S.’ in P.S.1 stands, or stood, for ‘public school’; the abandoned building was rescued in 1971 to create one of the biggest non-profit contemporary-arts spaces in the USA. Under the bright white paint, its former incarnation lingers in the acoustics and a generally unsettling atmosphere; the school must have felt like a prison, with its steep, narrow stairwells and that echoing-corridor feel so familiar from all the American movies and T.V. shows set in both kinds of institutions. Cell-like former classrooms now house quirky installations such as Prema Murthy’s Fuzzy Logic, a giant cats’ cradle knotted out of thick black wool and tethered to the ceiling and three corners of the floor; and Molly Larkey’s merrily rainbow-striped sculpture The Believers, which suggests the molecular model of a sinister new artificial flavouring. From a second-floor corridor you can peer down into the double-height Duplex Gallery at Brazilian artist Tunga’s installation À la Lumière des Deux Mondes (At the Light of Both Worlds), in which three giant canes are looped with hanks of black wire wedged with a gold comb. The ‘hair’ forms a hammock to rest an oversized black-painted skeleton, and bunches of black and gold-painted skulls hang from the ends of the ropes. It could be the overblown stage set for a Renaissance tragedy, and although the symbolism of the gilded memento mori is hardly subtle, the installation is eerily atmospheric – an effect probably helped by the vertigo induced by looking down on it from thirty feet up.
The gallery’s policy of minimal wall text often makes the connections between the exhibits hard to follow – even at the basic level of working out what is meant to be connected to what – and consulting the website (www.ps1.org) later, I realized there’s plenty I managed to miss. Appropriately enough, the main exhibition is ‘Organizing Chaos’, a collection of works from the 1950s to the present exploring chance and random connections. Curated by Neville Wakefield, the exhibition includes some striking set pieces, but chaos seems to win out over order in the display of disparate works that don’t relate quite closely enough to produce the grander collective meaning the exhibition is striving for. There’s some chance interference from visiting on a Warm Up Saturday, too – Stephen Vitiello’s Dogs in the Yard sound piece (apparently a recording of fireworks and barking dogs) is impossible to hear over the music.
Several pieces interpret the exhibition’s theme by simply recording whatever happens while the camera rolls – for instance, Rivane Neuenshwander and Cao Guimarães’s elegant film of a soap bubble that bobs and stretches in the air, like the famous plastic-bag sequence from American Beauty but more fragile and emptier. The quintessential version of such laissez-faire documentation is Robert Smithson’s Rundown, from 1969, made up of jerky footage of his Glue Pour, in which the artist upends a barrel and watches a corner of Vancouver wilderness get slowly coated in plasticky redness. It made me wonder if there’s a parallel between American artists’ fascination with chaos in the late 1960s and today, both moments at which shambolic, apparently endless wars are happening in the distance, inviting the question of whether it’s better to get involved or stand back and let it unfold.
For many of the artists in the show, music offers a way of exploring the wobbly line between intention and chance. Lee Fowler’s Pilgrimage from Scatter Points is a documentary piece following the improvisational Scratch Orchestra, while Bruce Nauman teases the original subverter of musical tradition in Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage). Cage’s seminal 1952 score 4’33”, in which the pianist is instructed to open the instrument but not to play, is displayed alongside Nauman’s piece, for which he recorded all the sounds in his studio during his absence, for the length of seven CDs, and created the ‘visual’ counterpart displayed here: a banal, printed record of the sounds. It’s hard to conclude much more than that Nauman needs an exterminator, given the frequency with which he notes the scrabbling of mice and bugs, and without the recordings themselves we’re left to wonder what distinguishes the sound marked simply ‘moth’ from ‘moth: excellent’. There’s an unexpected connection between Cage and Christian Marclay’s violent Guitar Drag, which similarly attacks the potential of a musical instrument by recording the bashing and shredding of an electric guitar as it’s pulled at high speed along a deserted highway. The result is both playful and sinister, like a YouTube video shot by David Lynch.
Other pieces focus on the chaotic potential of endlessly reproducible images: Hans-Peter Feldmann uses ordinary A4 photocopies to reduce kitsch Athena-poster prints to ghosts of their former selves, while Tomoko Takahashi’s two gorgeous Abstracts are made up of hundreds of glossy 4×6 prints stapled haphazardly to a wall within a masking-tape boundary. Up close the prints are enigmatic fragments of stairwells, doorways, empty rooms, and from a distance they never quite coalesce into a recognisable whole. The floor is littered with abundant leftovers from these projects, face down or in packets, suggesting a work in progress and the endless substitutions possible from an overabundance of available pictures.
By the end of the show my initial frustration at the haphazardness of P.S.1’s layout had faded. The sheer size of this space – and none of it is wasted – is always going to make coherence difficult, but that’s what makes it exciting. During Warm Up, especially, there’s a good chance that visitors with no interest in contemporary art will stumble across something stunning as they’re hunting down the loos with the smallest queues: perhaps a tiny jewel of a video embedded in the floor just by the entrance -Pipilotti Rist’s Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless in the Bath of Love) – or a roomful of witty graffiti-inspired fake record covers by New York street artist Lee Quiñones. Like the DJs of the sundown set who threw everything from Salt’n’Pepa to The Clash into the mix, the curators of P.S.1 glory in the eclectic and unexpected, happily teetering on the verge of chaos.