Sunday, October 31, 2010

Placing the Blaine

It's an interesting accident that for Halloween today, I have something related to the holiday to discuss. It concerns PS1 Contemporary Art Center. For those readers living in other parts of the world, it's a sort of branch of the Museum of Modern Art that's been set up in a converted school building out in Queens. "PS" is how New York City designates its Public Schools, and the ones that aren't named for a dead president or someone are all numbered. PS1 concentrates on more contemporary work than its mothership, for the most part.

The MoMA is probably the greatest modern art museum on the whole planet. I mean no disrespect to the great museums in any other part of the world, but I say that because MoMA came into existence at the very moment that New York was about to explode as the world leader in Modern Art. It was the love child of some of the wealthiest people in the world who could provide it with a collection of artworks from this era unparalleled by any other institution. The tides may be turning away from New York now, granted. To where, I don't know. Berlin? Tokyo? The Netherlands? I suppose it remains to be seen.

Despite all that, it is, ironically, an old school institution. It has a long tradition in the Modern Movement, but it's big. It's corporate. It has responsibilities to Monet, Van Gogh, and Mondrian, so to speak. The stakes are too high. It's what made PS1 such a fantastic complement to the monolithic MoMA. PS1 could be edgier, more hip, more futuristic, more thought-provoking a destination. I haven't been to one for a few years, but their outdoor afternoon parties on summer Sundays drew one of the coolest crowds I'd ever seen: mature but energetic, international but drawn together by an elusive sense of belonging, ridiculously hip but without trying too hard. They'd get superb DJs and the installations in their courtyard were interactive, innovative, and fun.

All this has made recent events all the more disappointing. The first thing that happened was, in my humble opinion, completely unforgivable. In one of their galleries they were hosting a performance by Ann Liv Young. Young's act was offensive, obscene, angry, insulting, disgusting, loud, and perverse. So halfway through, the director of the museum, Klaus Biesenbach, shut off the power in the room to put an end to her performance. At one point there was a video of the performance that included the censoring moment, but it appears to have been taken down. If you do manage to find it, it is obviously NSFW.

SO WHAT. In this day and age, art is not about making people happy. It's not about being pretty. It's about challenging and questioning and altering people's perception of the world and themselves. That's not always a pleasant undertaking. I'm not suggesting her work accomplished any of that. I'm not even saying that I found it all that interesting or good. And Young's antics are a romp through a field of daisies compared to some of the hijinks Karen Finley was pulling over twenty years ago. That's hardly the point.

If Biesenbach shouldn't be fired, and I believe he should be, then he most certainly should be shunned by anyone who cares at all about contemporary art. At the very least, he should hide his face in shame. How someone who would even dare to think about censoring an artist is allowed to direct an art institution in New York City is completely beyond me. What have we come to in New York? He almost makes me ashamed to live here with this deplorable behavior. Small mention should be made, as at least one article pointed out, if there were concerns that her performance was actually putting audience members in danger, shutting off all the lights was about the most dangerous solution he could have come up with.

I've just not been able to get past it. When I get email blasts from PS1 now, all I can think is, "eh. What of truly forward, mind-altering interest could they possibly have to offer me when they'd have the nerve to censor artworks?" It was the same reason that I permanently boycotted Blockbuster many years ago, after hearing that they'd taken it upon themselves to re-edit certain films to make them more family-friendly. "Who in the hell do they think they are," I thought to myself, to alter the work of an artist, a filmmaker, because there was something they didn't think people should see? But there is much more at stake for a contemporary art institution than a couple of questionable video tapes.

Then I got the most recent notice from PS1. David Blaine is performing there. David Blaine. I know, I get it, Halloween: magician. I absolutely love his work. His Harry Houdinian feats of endurance are maybe even more impressive than his mystifying illusionism. He brought something back into the art form that I'd truly never seen before. Despite the vaguely sinister twinkle in his eye, he has a surprisingly classy air about him, stoic and determined.

Oddly enough, I think he was a great match for Lincoln Center. The s(c)h(l)ock-value weirdness of his act there didn't rob LC of anything. In fact, it only really served to emphasize this as a performing arts acropolis across all standards. Practically speaking, it drew crowds of people who otherwise might never have walked up the stairs into that complex. Most poignantly, the endurance required by his spectacle was just an amplified distillation of what every performer goes through, especially the ones on the stages in the buildings that surrounded his fishbowl. From the other direction, the location gave his performance a boost of legitimacy that he'd been slowly earning all along on his own merits. Everybody wins.

This is something quite different at PS1. I just could not resist my urge to respond to that email: "Will you be shutting the lights off halfway through Blaine's performance, also, or is he 'safe' enough for you?" Although it is a game of Rock/ Paper/ Scissors, hopefully you'll understand how I mean this: Theater is Illusion. Theater is Art. But Art is not Illusion. "Of course it is!" you exclaim, and refer me to a thousand different paintings throughout art history. But I disagree. I maintain that Art is always about Truth, in its purest, deepest sense. In the sense that when Jackson Pollock first started dripping paint to express some inner state, he had discovered something radically more "True" than anyone before him. Even in Theater, the audience imagination required to reconcile the sometimes barest of scenery with the reality of being inside an auditorium is only the mechanics of the situation. The very best plays in history capture the most intimate Truth of human experience. It's why Romeo & Juliet endures.

Unlike at Lincoln Center, David Blaine at PS1 feels like a clown making balloon dogs at a five year old's birthday party. His presence makes PS1 look insipid and utterly irrelevant. The PS1 location isn't really helping him, either. It's not elevating what he does to the level of high art--and I do think that, to some degree, what he does is most certainly "art." For those who might encounter him who are aware of all the brilliant things that have been perpetrated by mainstream performance art over the past few decades, what he's doing will look not much better than superficial trickery without substance. I find this state of affairs personally and professionally disappointing.

I can only hope that this was a Halloween fluke. I can only hope that in the days to come, PS1 will both realize that its reputation has taken an unflattering blow and will endeavor to repair it. They owe it not just to themselves but to all of New York and to the art world in general.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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