Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New York's City's New Museum, Summer Exhibits: A Review

Before I became a full-time travel editor and writer, I had a much more serious profession. I was a musical theater actress.

Sometimes one profession bleeds into the other. As I'm visiting a historic sight, museum or restaurant, I start hearing music in my head, even before my thoughts form into coherent patterns.

Today, as I toured the summer exhibits of The New Museum in New York City, Marlene Dietrich's insistent purr of a voice kept echoing in my head. "Is that all there is? Is that all there is, my friend?" she plaintively asked, drowning out the drip drop of dozens of water filled buckets hanging from the ceiling and dripping into other buckets.

Art or outmoded plumbing? The viewer decides. And pays a $12 for the privilege.

To be fair, the Brazilian artist behind the buckets, Rivane Neuenschwander, had other, more successful pieces, on display. In the lobby she's set up walls of brightly-colored satin ribbons, each imprinted with a wish; the idea is taken from a gate in front of a famous church in Bahia. Visitors pick the wish that best suits them--"I wish I had the courage to divorce my husband", "I wish we lived in a world without conflict", "I wish I could feel the same joy I felt as a child"-- tie one around their wrists and when they fell off, their wish is apparently granted. The balloon-bright colors of the ribbons mixed with the poignant wishes made for an affecting work of art.

She also had a funny, little piece called "Involuntary Sculptures" which were collections of toothpicks, foil, corks, bottle caps and other pieces of restaurant and bar detritus that other patrons had casually doodled into sculptures while lost in conversation. Cute, if not all that profound.

Neuenschwander was paired with a retrospective of an artist who died some 20 years ago. Yes, an odd choice for a museum that's supposed to be dedicated to "the new".  The reasoning behind the exhibit: Brion Gysin, the artist, was an early pioneer in many of the trends still in vogue today.

And those apparently include maddeningly repetitive works of performance art; the practice of divorcing symbols from their usual meanings; large abstract paintings (that looked to me like pretty, mid-century wallpapers); and words used as part of art through the "cut up" technique he came up with (and then shared with his best buddy, William S. Boroughs).

Gysin also created an intriguing-sounding "dream machine", which the viewer is urged to experience with his eyes shut. Basically a whirling light-bulb inside a cut-out piece of heavy paper, it might be effective in conjunction with a tab of LSD. Alas, I was stone-cold sober, and bored when I knelt before it and tried to access its visionary properties.

All in all, Gysin seems to have had more of a talent for friendship than for art. His ideas were taken up by many other influential artists of all types (Burroughs, Keith Haring, David Bowie, Michael Stipes). The best pieces in the exhibit are his collaborations with Burroughs.

Which brings me back to that $12. For art lovers, who live in New York City, there are a few small gems here to see, possibly making this summer's show worth a visit. But for visitors coming to the city, your money and time will be better spent at the Metropolitan Museum's incredible bamboo roof sculpture or eye-opening costume exhibit on the shaping of the female American identity (admission "pay what you will"--yay!); or the auditory/visual smorgasbord at the Whitney Museum's Christian Marclay exhibit ($18 admission).

(Photo By Laura Manning)

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