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Destruction, Distress, and Disaster in NYC
by Charlie Schultz

An enormous American flag hangs in the MoMA’s atrium above Martha Rosler’s buzzing installation, "Meta-Monumental Garage Sale." Its stillness seems at odds with the commotion on the floor below where visitors rummage through stacks of records, videos, old books and magazines, piles of sweaters, and tables crowded with knick-knacks and old plates. Perhaps the flag is meant as a reminder that America is a consumer society, and that in such a nation to shop is to do one’s patriotic duty. Where the money goes is not always as evident as it is here; proceeds are being donated to assist the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

The neat accumulation of displaced goods in Rosler’s installation carries its own aesthetic implications. "Garage Sale" looks like a well-stocked relief center; the second hand objects ring with the prospect of reuse beneath the probing fingers of people searching, scrutinizing, hoping to discover something they can take home. As I picked through a cardboard box of old letters and out of date electronics I tried to imagine the lost histories of things that caught my attention. Belongings that cease to have value for their owners take on a slightly tragic air that seems somehow off set by the curiosity and desire of garage sale shoppers.

Thomas Hirshhorn, Concordia, Conordia; Courtesy Gladstone Gallery.


I had noticed but not thought much about the fact that themes of destruction, distress, and disaster were recurrent in the months prior to Hurricane Sandy. In Barbara Gladstone’s gallery Thomas Hirshhorn, for example, built a spectacular representation of the Spanish cruise ship, Concordia, that ran aground and partially sank last January. Visitors could look at the capsized interior space, but they could not move through or around it. Set apart from the viewer, Hirshhorn’s installation was not as directly participatory as another disaster-inspired installation at Lehmann Maupin. Here, the Japanese artist Mr. created a sprawling environment composed primarily of detritus left on the streets of Tohoku after a the devastating earthquake last March. Visitors circumnavigated a great hulking mass of bundled junk that occupied much of the gallery. “Metamorphosis: Give Me Your Wings” did not attempt to recreate a particular scene or episode, rather it evoked the overwhelming sensation of being in a space flooded with detritus.

Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman’s exhibition “Stray Light Grey” at Marlborough Gallery was a grand manifestation of distressed and abandoned spaces. Like a movie based on a true story, it was a convincingly realistic space without any specific referent in reality. Passing through holes in walls and rooms covered in dust, the concept of a contemporary ruin was well articulated. Here, the visitor was confronted with the psychological disturbance of passing through interiors that seemed to be in a state of slow collapse.

Mr., Metamorphosis: Give Me Your Wings, Installation shot; Courtesy Lehmann Maupin.


At Sikkema Jenkins, Leonardo Drew installed a work made entirely of burnt wood that sprawled haphazardly through the gallery space like the twisted remains of some blistering inferno. Like Lowe and Freeman’s installation, Drew’s Number 161(2012) did not refer to anything outside itself. The work’s potency derived from its materiality and how it had been repurposed and arranged. A sense of nature’s destructive capabilities permeated each piece of scorched timber, and Drew’s generative act seemed to carry in it the desire to rebuild and renew.

While all of these artworks incorporated elements of destruction, Gelitin’s exhibition at Greene Naftali, “The Fall Show,” made it a form of entertainment. The four person collective installed a number of sculptures on plinths that visitors were encouraged to interact with. A lever protruded from the base of each plinth and if the viewer pressed it, the sculpture came crashing down. The clamor of smashing objects and audience laughter became a constant soundtrack. Playful destruction, it turns out, can be quite a lot of fun.  

Hurricane Sandy brought the city of New York into a bizarre kind of contextual harmony with these installations. It gave them an unexpected realism even as the reality of the storm’s destruction seemed so surreal as it unfolded. When the conditions of order that enable a complex urban infrastructure to operate cease to be effective, the context of one’s typical routine becomes reconfigured along the lines of fragmentation and breakdown. To varying degrees, each of these installations was built upon or at least seemed to acknowledge the fundamentals of this situation. Tragedy happens slowly, and in retrospect, as the events that dictate the terms of a tragic scenario unfold, hysteria characterizes the spectacle. There is an element of stillness to what is tragic, and of fierce motion to that which creates the tragedy. As I meandered through Rosler’s “Garage Sale” I thought about that simply duality, and how it was well represented by the enormous flag and constant hum of commotion over which it watched.


Charlie Schultz


(Image: Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale; Photo by Shannon Darrough.)

Posted by Charlie Schultz on 12/5/12

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