Monday, March 21, 2011

The Downtown New York Scene

A visit to Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark, Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s is quite the eye-opener, especially conducted under the watchful eye of the "supermoon".

In truth, the moon wasn't much in evidence when I arrived at the gallery for an early Saturday evening visit. And when I emerged two hours later, the moon was nowhere to be seen. But, SOMETHING was in the air. How else to explain the strange confluence of events, from the mysterious piano appearing on the pavement of a Shoreditch street to the gravity-defying yoghurt accident that befell me? London felt like one big performance piece.

But, back to the exhibit, a sprawling beast taking in two floors, numerous rooms and multi, multi-media: sculpture, sound art, Super 8 film, drawings, and even some dance. Trisha Brown's gymnastics-infused choreography is performed several times a day on the walls of the Barbican, as well as on the floor. I saw two pieces, Floor of the Forest and Walking on the Wall and was left rather bemused. But, it's certainly unusual. Too bad there is no recreation of her dances performed on the roofs of NYC. That must have been something to see.

Laurie Anderson I know mostly as an innovative musician, but her visual art was a revelation. Even her handwriting is artistic, perfectly formed letters that could be plucked from cartoons. No surprise then to discover she was a political cartoonist at the university newspaper. Is there nothing this woman can't do? Her drawings for such pieces as The Handphone Table were beautifully wrought, witty and clever.

And then to see the piece below and watch people's reactions to it was fascinating. When I'd arrived, I'd walked right past the cluster of her works, imagining the odd clasping gestures I witnessed to be one of the live performances scheduled. But, no, we were the performers for these pieces, as they were in the interactive section. Laying my head on the Talking Pillow, I heard Anderson whispering to me, while seated at The Handphone Table, hands pressed to my skull, I heard some bass frequencies.

By contrast, Matta-Clark's and Brown's displays were much grander: large-scale installations grounded in urban architecture and movement. Anderson's concerns seem more intimate and wittier and to me, more endearing. Though there was no video, just stills of it, I could well imagine her performing her Duets on Ice on the streets of New York, wearing ice skates encased in ice, playing her violin to passing jaded habitues of the city.

And there was a bit of nostalgia for me in this very New York show. Though much younger than the artists, I well remember the crumbling, grumbling New York City of this time in the early 1970s when The Big Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy. Though it spawned punk, No Wave and a host of counter-cultural movements, it was a difficult time. But, very exciting.

Of course, "downtown New York" meant Manhattan and I lived in the Bronx, oblivious to the world of performance and avant-garde. While Gordon Matta-Clark may have been "dancing with buildings", cutting sections out of them to highlight neglect, I was living a more mundane existence, full of subways, Yankees and the odd teachers strike. It takes a certain detachment to see everyday life as an art project.
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