Wednesday 24 August 2011


Now I grant that it might appear a little... um... eccentric to review an art exhibition (staged at the Barbican) which actually finished in May! Unless of course it’s just downright barmy. However, the show may well be... er... shown but it’s still very much worth reading about. And the delay is perhaps a testament to just how much good stuff’s been happening lately. (Um, maybe.)

Institutional Dreaming in the City

...okay it’s not an exhibition with a very catchy title. But it is a fitting one, and the curators should be commended for resisting the temptation to call it “the very famous Laurie Anderson plus some of her buddies.” As the name suggests this show commemorates a scene, a group of artists working together, and evokes the time and place they arose from (Seventies SoHo, downtown Manhattan). When Matta-Clarke created an artist’s cafe, ‘Food’, allowing artists to meet, eat cheaply and sometimes earn a dollar through helping out, it’s treated as “an artwork in and of itself.” By the end, this show will convince you that’s entirely appropriate.

As I argued in a previous piece on Brian Eno “though often presented as the preserve of individual genius, art is at root a collectivising force – a way of getting you out of yourself… offering up ideas like dishes at a potlatch dinner creates new combinations which generates more ideas – sharing makes more.” Art springs out of scenes; it needs a combination of the right soil to nurture it, and other germinating seeds around it to inspire growth.

However, for all the stage-sharing, it’s Anderson who provides the epitomising work - a photo of her asleep in the public gallery at a Night Court. The very concept of Night Courts conjurs up the crime-ridden, dysfunctional New York of the Seventies - a judicial system straining at the seams, with not enough hours in the day to cover all the cracks. This was a place where you stood more chance of getting mugged than an arts grant. Yet Anderson uses the Court for dreaming in. Her accompanying text explains “I am trying to sleep in different pubic places to see if the place can colour or control my dreams.” (This was part of an ’Institutional Dream’ series.)

We’re used to artistic depictions of New York of quite a different colour. Cities in art occupy a particular place, and New York is the uber-city. The Tate’s recent ‘Exposed’ photography exhibition, for example, featured Jacob Riis’ early reportage snapshots of New York tenement poverty. And when we’re not on social realism, we expect the city to be used expressionistically. In ’Taxi Driver’, released in 1976, it’s both spur and backdrop to a troubled mind. Lou Reed (ironically Anderson’s future husband) sang of “the big city, where a man cannot be free.”

This scene would seem to channel quite a different punk lyric, Pere Ubu’s “we can live in the empty spaces of this life.” Urban dereliction proved fertile ground for this scene. Places were so run-down capital was barely colonising them any more, rents were falling to almost nothing (lowered still further for anyone who claimed to be an artist). Streetside art happenings were unlikely to disrupt business when little commerce was going on beyond drug peddling.

But motive is always more important than opportunity. Unlike Reed, they saw the city as precisely the place where you could be free. Grimy, crumbling downtown is seen through a Corbusian dream filter, the city is seen as the opening-up of space. (An associated talk was given on Corbusier’s influence on Matta-Clarke.) The City becomes a kind of exoskeleton, augmenting and enhancing us, freeing us from the limitations imposed by nature. We can be whisked along just by boarding a bus, leap to the sky just by pressing an elevator button.

If Anderson is the anti-star, the poster image of the show came from Trisha Brown’s ’Walking on the Wall’ (1971, pictured above). In this work performers don harnesses and walk horizontally along... oh, you guessed. The handouts note “at times, they appear to the viewer to be foreshortened as if seen from several storeys above.” In fact, my guess would be that Brown got this idea after looking down from some glass tower to the street below.

(It’s also notable that much of the content of the piece comes from the rituals of politeness. For one performer to cross another’s path the other has to kneel, or their harness would be a barrier. This seems closer to hat-tipping Edwardian gentlemen, out for their morning constitutional, than any commonly received notion of downtown SoHo streets!)

This may come across even more strongly in another of Brown’s works, and my personal favourite of the performance pieces, ’Planes’, above. (Technically out of bounds for being made in 1968, but who’s counting?) Performers traverse a climbing wall while a collage of images projects over them. As this goes from aerial views of Manhattan to the microscopic, their presence seems to shift - between dominating forms, falling figures and dots and atoms. I kept being reminded of Spider-Man’s building-scaling abilities. (I am starting to get worried about how often art exhibitions remind me of superhero comics!)

As art is not only brought out onto the streets but in some ways becomes an expression of the streets, and performance spaces lose their boundaries, another distinction which collapses is between private and public space. This was quite literally true of the now-legendary lofts, which tripled up as living space, studio and performance area.

This is quite explicit in Matta-Clark’s ’Clock Shower’ (above) in which he performs domestic daily routines such as shaving and washing while suspended from an actual clock face. Everyone regards this as rooted in Harold Lloyd’s ’Safety Last’, and perhaps it is. But I thought of it as the inverse of the scene in ’Metropolis’ where the hero, dressed as a worker, is slave to the clock. The clock here is not incessantly ticking tyranny but a climbing frame. (There’s a video of it here, wind to 9.44.)

The programme notes the scenesters “distancing themselves from the dominant artistic movements of the 1960s, Pop art and Minimalism.” This striving to make their subjects unique does underplay the influence of Fluxus. (Anderson has spoken of how rooted in the Sixties they were, and cited Fluxus as an influence.) However there is none of the Dadaistic anti-art iconoclasm that often fed into Fluxus. If Dada wanted to sabotage and destroy art, the downtowners wanted art to flood its banks and appear everywhere. Art to them was simply an invitation to play.

It should be conceded that some works, seen in isolation, would seem merely the scrag-end of conceptualism. In one piece Anderson compresses a pile of the day’s papers into bricks and date-stamps them. But even the weaker works such as this don’t deflate you, for it’s not a show which is a composite of individual works, where you juggle weaker pieces against stronger in your mental accountancy. It’s about the wood not the trees.

Centering the Scene?

Brown is quoted as being “thrilled by... the community of downtown Manhattan, a real concurrence of conceptual and performance art.” Befitting such multidisciplinarian leanings, the show presents a wide variety of forms – drawings, sculptures, art objects, documentation, videos of performances and even performances re-enacted live in the gallery. It may be worth asking where the actual centre of the show is? The preparatory drawings (which perhaps represent the idea in its purest form), the art object, the videoed performance, the performance being re-enacted live in the here and now?

We’re told they “valued ideas and process over finished objects”, so perhaps it’s the drawings. Yet the artists themselves differed greatly in how they saw them. Anderson’s diagrams are clearly composed and worked on, ready for display. (They remind us that she started out as a cartoonist.) Matta-Clarke’s action plans, however, are frenzied accumulations of motion lines, looking like they’ve been scrawled in some mad rush then posted beneath the door of a padded cell. (It’s quite hilarious to see them neatly framed on a gallery wall!)

This was the era of emerging “video art”, but the videos here mostly feel like documentation of events. To stand and watch them would be like concentrating your mind on an ambient soundscape – a catgeory error. Even an obsessive like myself tended to skim them, watching a segment then glancing back as I made my way around each room, checking how they were progressing.

So perhaps the answer is the performances. This exhibition certainly needed something like the live performances in order to work, to avoid becoming a dry record of a long-gone party. It’s fantastic that the curators recognised this and had them going on in the gallery every day, rather than just as a one-off show. However (and this is doubtless looking a gift horse in the mouth), staging them as timetabled events, sometimes with curtain calls at the end, made them too much of a centrepiece. You become aware that they’re actually neat concepts, but actually fairly structureless. Had they gone on continuously, one leading to another, the viewer could have dipped in and out of them, as with the video works.

(Their rough-edged informality was captured, however, by the way most of them were staged without a designated or obvious audience space. With no ‘ideal’ vantage point, wherever you stood you missed some of the action, and probably saw a slightly different show to someone elsewhere.)

Of course, the question is a Zen one. This show has no centre for you to discover. Ideally you’d pass through it the way you would a city, soaking it in rather than reading it, witnessing and absorbing slightly different things to your neighbours. It ‘s essence sparks and flickers in between the works. It’s less about presenting an idea than evoking a feeling, the feeling that the City could be reterritorialised as a place for play.

...part two here!!!

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