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Seeing In Between: Notes from the Belly of the Beast

Tentacles of the Beast, 2008

Tentacles of the Beast, 2008

I just returned from a trip to New York in the height of the August heat with all of the lovely smells and suffocating humidity that comes with it. The goal of this trip? To spend as much time with artists and their work as possible, to slip into the city’s unique rhythms and magic anonymously and deeply. To see again.

My first experience with art on this trip happened unexpectedly and almost immediately. When I got to my Midtown hotel to drop off my bags before rushing down to a Chelsea studio on 26th Street, I pulled back my curtains and opened the windows, letting in the outside air to equalize the freezing air in my room. Set before me was a Hitchcockian scene, a 21st century Rear Window. I looked outside of my room on the eighth floor and saw various people engaged in quiet, disparate activities: in one window a woman busy at her desk, in another two people kissing, and an old man walking out onto the fire escape to grab a secret smoke. There were silent intimate recognitions, an awareness that we were all seeing each other, despite our resistance to acknowledging it, a fierce refusal to allow our eyes to meet directly. Extreme privacy and exposure both at once. I was reminded of the Impressionist era opera paintings where the subject of the work is spectatorship, the reciprocal experience of looking and being looked at. What happens in the space between.

The old man turned out to be a performance artist of sorts. Standing on the balcony he pulled open a new pack of cigarettes, removing the small bit of rectangular foil and carefully and intentionally released it in midair. My first reaction to his gesture was anger, but this soon yielded to embarrassment at witnessing his private transgression, an acknowledgment that we all have these moments but never want to admit to them. And then something happened: the small piece of foil wafted through the air, catching the glints of sunlight like some precious, weightless gem released from outer space. Watching it descend and flutter eight floors to the ground, I found myself smiling completely, awed by the simple beauty that such a common object could bring to this very particular context and moment. And then I realized that the old man had dropped the foil just for me, enacting a private performance pointing to the Beautiful, an experience of the Sublime.

Type A and Lisa

Type A and Lisa

Then on to Chelsea to meet up with collective Type A (Adam Ames and Andrew Bordwin), two artists with whom I’m working on a major Team Building project for the much anticipated Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park which will open in September 2009. The streets of Chelsea were mostly abandoned, the dealers secreted away in the Hamptons for the last gasp of summer before the frenzy of season openers in September. Adam and Andrew and I were about to head to South Street Seaport to take the Circle Line around the Harbor to see Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls project.  When I got to their studio, they were excited to show me a new body of work, a series of photogravures that they had been developing over the past year.

Untitled, Type A. Courtesy of Goff & Rosenthal.Untitled, Type A. Courtesy of Goff & Rosenthal.

Untitled, Type A, 2008. Courtesy of the artists and Goff & Rosenthal, New York.

They laid them out before me and talked about their menacing quality and I disagreed with them immediately, saying that the series was emphatically intimate, beautiful, vulnerable, romantic, mysterious, nostalgic, and poetic. The velvety, luscious images depict the artists’ bodies posed in extreme shadow to reveal only a fragment of the whole. Each picture presents one body separate and alone, but inevitably in dialogical relation to the other. The best ones verge on abstraction, where the forms become almost unrecognizable, but forcefully organic and referential. Because Adam and Andrew each took the complementary picture of the other, there is a fascinating duality to the works that encapsulates Adam and Andrew’s unorthodox artistic relationship, a kind of unified portrait of the maker and the sitter, a self and other, a presence and a lack. In most photographic situations the photographer and the sitter usually are unrelated, but these images take on more significance because of Adam and Andrew’s collaborative practices over the past ten years. There is an interesting in-betweenness in these photos, a tension between the two of them that is an unspoken but visual and physical form of intimacy.

Adam, Andrew and I had a lively, rambunctious cab ride downtown to experience Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls from a boat. Approaching the Pier on a hot New York summer night, I was blanketed by the smell of saltwater and sea air along with the accompanying odor of diesel fumes. It reminded me of my youth at the New Jersey shore (and of another incredible project that Adam and Andrew are developing. . . more to come on that in a future post, perhaps). Now the art was coming to me in the form of a smell, showing me the way an odor can evoke memories and physical sensations, creating an elusive mental picture that fades immediately upon experiencing it, leaving a satisfying sense of longing and desire for a past that can never be completely reconstructed. Standing in line, Andrew had me turn around to see an old ship and the skyline of downtown New York through its masts. More magic in everyday things.

ships and masts

South Street Seaport near the Circle Line

The waterfalls are remarkable and ordinary at the same time. Our favorite one sat beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, itself a work of art. The majestic bridge juxtaposed with the immense scaffolding of Eliasson’s waterfall’s armature was strikingly beautiful and perfectly sited; the scale of hundreds of feet of rushing water against the backdrop of the bridge and cityscape utterly breathtaking and pleasurable. The irrationality of a manmade waterfall made from hundreds of feet of steel and pumps, sitting in an absurd location, pointed to the unlikely relationship between art, nature, urban infrastructure, and the postindustrial present.

So much more happened on the trip, including a wonderful studio visit with sculptor Petah Coyne who is finishing up a new body of work that will premiere at Galerie Lelong on October 24, 2008. I’ve been watching the work develop over the last few years and have been lucky enough to engage with Petah in an intense dialogue about its relationship to art history, literature (particularly Dante’s renowned epic poem The Divine Comedy), film, and personal memory. I think it is some of the best work that she has produced to date. There are two objects that stand out the most for me, one based on the medieval poet Dante’s idealized, beloved Beatrice and the other on the Roman poet Virgil. I would welcome either of these objects into the IMA’s permanent collection with gusto, just in case there’s anyone out there reading with the will and means to help us grow the collection with a single gesture.

Petah Coyne  Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-08

Petah Coyne, Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-08. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.

I have fallen in love with Coyne’s Beatrice, once described by Dante as “La gloriosa donna della mia mente” (the glorious lady of my mind). Long the subject of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets, Beatrice has been transformed anew into a peculiar abstract vision comprised of roughly 20,000 silk flowers, wax cast statuary, taxidermy animals and birds, thread, silk/rayon velvet, felt, tree branches, tree bark, driftwood, specially formulated wax, pearl-headed hat pins, black spray paint, pigment, plywood, wood, metal hardware, chicken wire fencing, wire, cable and cable bolts. With all of these components, one would be hard pressed to believe that the final object could be specific, cohesive, and staggering. But it is.

Petah Coyne  Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-08

Petah Coyne, Detail, Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-08. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.

Petah’s irresistible blue and purple Beatrice, which contrasts with previous depictions of her in red and white, towers over the spectator at just over eleven feet tall; she is the whirling embodiment of Divine Love, virtue, and grace, a force of good, a personification of Beauty. This condensed representation of essential love simultaneously encapsulates the geography of paradise and its most famous guide.

Petah Coyne makes the viewer want to believe in Heaven, even if s/he has her doubts.

And then an amazing dinner conversation with Orly Genger who is in the midst of developing a powerful commissioned project for our Efroymson Entry Pavilion which will open on November 21, 2008. Orly once told me that she sees her work perched at the intersection of Anni Albers and Richard Serra. This colossal hand-knotted, organic installation is going to be amazing. Be prepared to be moved in lots of ways!

Then back to Indianapolis to escort a Chicago-based blogger around the Art & Nature Park. Walking out of the rear loading dock, heading over towards the Park, I ran into two IMA employees, Brad Dilger, our masterful installation tech who handles all of our intermedia art projects with great innovation and commitment, and Brose Partington, a fabulous artist in his own right who helps build mounts and other things for our exhibitions. Walking over to me with impish grins, they asked me to take a look at two shiny, ribbed aluminum venting pipes that were spilling out of a dark mechanical doorway on the side of our limestone building. Tied together and suspended on the side of the building, the functional pipes looked like part of a Tim Hawkinson installation (perhaps I was thinking this because on Monday I just installed a new addition to our collection, Hawkinson’s Mobius Ship, up on the third floor in the contemporary galleries). Upon closer inspection, I saw an object label (perfectly scaled and formatted) haphazardly affixed to one of the exhaust pipes.  On it someone had typed the following words:

Tentacles of the Beast, 2008
Aluminum on Limestone
Building Services

I marveled at this installation of shiny pipes and the gesture invoked by our Building Services employees through naming it. Although I knew it was meant as a spoof, the effort that they made to name this everyday functional form moved me; the fact that they named it was a way of seeing in it its artistry and humor. It brought the Beautiful back to me again in another guise. It is always a good sign for a creative institution when things like this start popping up around the building where people work. And I thought how great it was that so many people sitting at the smoking shack – custodians, electricians, curators, preparators – were talking about the question of what made something art. Could a set of aluminum exhaust pipes transform into a sculpture in situ? The very real act of seeing was happening in the IMA’s back yard, people were talking about art and the everyday. It was exceptionally cool.

Tentacles of the Beast, 2008

Tentacles of the Beast, 2008

So I asked Bert Reader, our facilities engineer, a.k.a., the artist, to share a little bit more about the work. Here’s what he said:

“This whole contraption came about in an effort to eliminate the need for the temporary emergency generator which cost the IMA about $1000 per day just to sit there.  Part of the reason for the recent generator failure was that the room air temperature became too hot when the generator ran. Adapters where purchased from Caterpillar and mounted on the combustion air intake manifolds.  12″ aluminum flexible pipes were connected and they were run outside allowing combustion air to be drawn in at ambient conditions. We are currently working with BDMD and Circle Design group to find a permanent solution.  Hester DeLoach [our typesetter] remarked that the pipes look like tentacles, David Lingeman [from Buildings] noted that it was aluminum on limestone, and the generator has been a beast, a problem child, since it was placed there, hence the title.  Someone mentioned that it looked like it was trying to get out, and interestingly enough had we placed the generator outside to begin with, we wouldn’t have had any issues.”

Art is found in the places in between. It is the responsibility of each of us to open ourselves up to seeing it.

Filed under: Art, Art and Nature Park, Travel

10 Responses to “Seeing In Between: Notes from the Belly of the Beast”

  • avatar
    Meg Says:

    When I was in NYC last month, I drove by Eliason’s Waterfalls. It was incredible how concurrently they seem so out of context and so perfectly positioned. Your blog is beautiful and is a wonderful expression of how art doesn’t just live within the walls of galleries and museums.

  • avatar
    Anthony Says:

    You are so lucky to have such easy access to these very famous and well established artist’s studios! What a great experience and thanks for sharing! I saw an amazing installation of Coyne’s work at the Chicago Cultural Center several years ago and loved the work!

    art lover

  • avatar
    Jenny Says:

    What a beautiful description of your trip and your return. It’s wonderful to see through your eyes.

  • avatar
    Sandra Abbott Says:

    Love the Tenticles! And Coyne, Eliasson, Type A, all those old, familiar names and places. Thanks for sending.

    I didn’t know you were blogging. Keep up the good work. I’ll be checking in.


  • avatar
    Jonathan Says:

    What a moving debut. Starting with the foil on a box of cigarettes and ending with the aluminum skin of a pipe. Starting with the heat of the surreptitious cigarette, ending with the heat of blown exhaust. Heat, and the quintessential modern metal: what better materials could a contemporary curator use to wrap a summer story?

  • avatar
    Colin Says:

    Looking forward to your next post about your experiences as a curator.

  • avatar
    Craig Says:

    I love to read your insights. Please keep posting! The Coyne work is fantastic and I would love to see it at the IMA. As for your building services dept…. IMO they should grace the cover of facilities maintenance trade magazines across the nation. How great is it to see the everyday in the context of the conceptual and artful?

  • avatar

    What great writing. I really felt I was back in the NY art scene! So glad to find your blog. Looking forward to meeting you at future IMA events!

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