Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To the Guggenheim With Love

Last week Marc and I went to New York for a short vacation made affordable by the fact that his mother’s apartment was vacant as she and her husband spent time in Florida. Our goal was to spend four days working remotely and to take advantage of as many arty opportunities as possible. This led us to see the big, blinking musical Next to Normal and to luck into free tickets to the David Letterman Show with guests Paris Hilton (who looks like a Christmas ornament in person) and comedian Sara Silverman (who knows how to work an audience). Kicking around the city, I found some most excellent, semi-free used vinyl records to add to the collection that's already sagging one of our floors at home.

Then there was the Guggenheim. We had an unencumbered view of the museum's interior because its spiraling rotunda walls were empty and had just been patched, sanded and repainted white. This sparseness was the backdrop for two “constructed situations” by artist Tino Sehgal. The first, which took place on the floor of the rotunda, was a three-hour session between a man and woman who, in choreographed fashion, hugged, kissed, rolled around and generally simulated third-base sex with each other. (Had they been someplace else, someone might have looked twice.) When I asked one of the museum guards what he thought of the performance, he was pragmatic. “Well, man, it’s not such a tough way to make a buck.” Looking at another V-shaped guard standing next to us, he added, “I’d do it with him if the money were right.” My imagination soared. “I’d have no problem with it,” replied the second guard, “no problem at all.”

The second Sehgal situation couldn’t be ignored. Marc and I walked onto the rotunda ramp with the intention of seeing an exhibit titled Paris and the Avant-Garde: Modern Masters from the Guggenheim Collection on the top floor. As soon as we were on the ramp, however, a cherubic little girl skipped over to us and said, “Can I ask you a question? What is progress?” As she led us to the next floor, we gave answers that we thought a 10-year-old would understand and then she disappeared. “Hello,” said a 20-something woman who appeared from out of nowhere, “so what do you think progress is?” Walking upward, we talked about the night sky, technology, alienation and I’m sure other topics within a span of four minutes, before she too disappeared and was replaced by a bearded Upper East Side type in his thirties. Marc got a little flustered when the conversation with our new “constructed situation” pal took on an anti-technology edge. And so it went with new companions - one older than the next – appearing and disappearing and any hope for an acceptable definition of “progress” fading with time.

Finally just outside the top-floor painting exhibition, Marc and I figured that the purpose of Sehgal’s serial conversation had been to make us think about a complex subject. Yes, but what else? Since so many people are intimidated and silent in museums, maybe the overall purpose of the exercise was to loosen people up and make them talk, period. We shrugged our shoulders and looked down to the bottom floor of the rotunda. The two performance lovers were still going at it - anonymous and alone.

Paris and the Avant-Garde was a small recap of some of what was going on in Western European art between the end of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression. Prominently featured were the topics of Cubism as expressed by Picasso, Georges Braque, Albert Gleizes and Juan Gris; and Surrealism, as expressed by Yves Tanguy and Joan Miro. The work was solid but I didn’t fully engage with the show until I came upon a small selection of Calder mobiles stuck on the opposite side of the exhibition space. Cordoned off so as not to be touched, Calder’s intentionally playful works stood still in the vacuum of art history. When the guard left the gallery, I walked around the mobiles like a doctor and determined they needed exercise. Two big breaths to the mobiles’ arms and they bobbed up and down, biomorphic shapes drifted across each other’s paths and then, once again, fell into a slumber.

For 15 seconds they were beautiful, more beautiful than any cherubic girl, bearded conversationalist or demi-lover I had encountered during the ascent.


  1. yeah, yeah - it might have been the perfect sitting but was the joke on us for paying 36 bucks to see empty walls and have a little chat with actors? although thinking about the commodification of art seems to be what sehgal is after - the pieces are actually for sale. i read that the guggenheim show is "on loan" from moma and that all the contracts are oral. puts another spin on it when you're sitting on the other side of the counter -

    when we were done with the fourth and last "handler," part of me felt like running down the ramps and doing it again but i thought that somehow this would make the experience inauthentic. the anti-technology bent to the conversations did piss me off (so much great stuff being made now with photoshop, etc.) that all i would have wanted to do was derail the poor players. instead, i behaved myself, went to the gift shop and waited for jim by watching the couple making out on the ground floor of the rotunda.

  2. This guy made the little girl cry: