All images courtesy Gladstone Gallery.
The artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are currently making their solo debut in a commercial New York gallery, 13 years after they first established themselves as a force in the international arts festival circuit. Perhaps they’ve been too busy. Theirs is a practice that has often exposed and interacted with geopolitical phenomena at a ground level, far away from the chic gutted warehouses of Chelsea. In the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques, the artists produced shoes for the island’s inhabitants that would leave imprinted messages of protest against the US military’s hostile occupation. When the conflict ended in 2003, Allora & Calzadilla made a film of a proud local activist zooming around the land with a trumpet attached to his motorcycle exhaust, droning and moaning, cleansing, celebrating of the island’s liberation.
For this debut, at the Gladstone Gallery, they chose to exhibit a single, small piece. The work, Stop, Repair, Prepare, is an early-20th-Century Bechstein grand piano with an 18-inch hole bored through its center. Strings from the middle two octaves have been removed with the excision, and the pedals for damping and sustain have been rotated 180 degrees; that is the extent of the sculptural intervention. Every hour, on the hour, one of six pianists climbs inside the piano and plays the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the piece known to most as the “Ode To Joy”, from inside the instrument. The player, once situated, resembles a jack-in-the-box, or a stripper emerging from a prop cake. Mistakes are made despite the evident virtuosity of the players, and the middle notes–much of the most recognizable parts of the piece–just make tappy noises as the hammers hit wood instead of strings. A few minutes into the piece, without warning, the performer starts pushing the piano around on its wheels while playing. By the time the movement is finished, the instrument has traveled the entirety of the gallery. It is unusual to see a piano performance while face-to-face with the performer; it’s even more unusual to have to move around during a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in order to catch it all.
A middle-aged man with over-designed spectacles and a lagging companion wandered in seconds after the 20-minute performance’s finale. “Hmm, it’s Fluxus,” he said, conclusively and without great enthusiasm, as they peered into the guts of the piano. Though easily unimpressed, dude was no fool, for the piece has a marked fraternity with the nebulous ’60s movement associated with (among dozens) Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik. That hyperproductive school emphasized performance and musical scoring, playfulness first, cultural common languages and simplicity. A seminal Fluxus work like Charlotte Moorman’s Bomb-Cello–in which a six-foot shell was strung and played with surprising success by the cellist-artist–would sit fruitfully with Allora & Calzadilla’s piano in a group show. So, indeed, the piece is in many respects a throwback. Yet it doesn’t seem redundant.
In another life I bluffed and fumbled my way through an interview for a director position at Gladstone Gallery, a bizarre hour of a potential future that I only return to at those occasional moments of adult crisis when I can’t afford particularly rare reggae records or can feel the sidewalk through a hole in the bottom of my shoe. The meeting took place in one of the largest New York rooms I have ever been in, an indescribably tall and completely bare white cube directly above the space where Allora & Calzadilla’s piano now sits, a room whose only adornment was a tiny table in the center that four of us could barely huddle around, as if we were involved in a particularly intense game of bridge and Barbara Gladstone was my partner. That room was a surreal space belonging to a dream, whimsical, nonsensical and out of proportion, completely indulgent.
A threshold must be crossed–someone must cross it–in order that the world may know, concretely and collectively, what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to have the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth played backwards and upside-down from inside a grand piano that’s moving. Stop, Prepare, Repair‘s gifts are the impractical sort we people, in regular-sized rooms, would never think of requesting. Whatever else the work means–the PR tees up intellectual and interesting bullet points about the various socio-political uses of the musical piece through history and the relationship between “composition and meaning, instrument and performance”–I am more than happy to speak now of simple gratitude: for a sharing of the wealth, for suspicion temporarily fading from thought, for fantasy available to all.-Bones
Stop, Repair, Prepare is up until February 21st at Gladstone, 515 West 24th Street. There are six performers on a rotation through the run. I saw Kathleen Tagg, who plucked the strings instead of bashing the keys for a few bars of the piece. There were about 20 people there, and the atmosphere is comfortable. No one will stop you from taking photographs.
Next week, Bones visits Guild & Greyshkul for the last time. On From Here, a four-day exhibition featuring over a hundred artists, will be the successful and pro young Soho space’s last hurrah before closing. The financial storm is beginning to shake solid commercial foundations, while young people are making no less art. How does it feel for these artists, and what are they making?