Contrary to many expectations, there is rigorous contemporary art that knocks your block off at first sight. James Nares’s high-definition video Street, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Galleries for Drawings, Prints, and Photographs, is a 61-minute moving image poem to the world capital of people watching—Manhattan. A distillation of several rush hours’ worth of mind-bending pedestrian traffic, Nares’s super-HD film captures New Yorkers gliding past sidewalks, stoops, and storefronts like asphalt jungle hummingbirds that have been slowed, flattened, and isolated with a vivisectionist’s precision.
Shot from a moving SUV during the course of a week all over Peter Minuit’s island, Nares’s dazzling video zeroes in on our motley fauna. The flora, of course, is easily recognizable: There’s the pavement commerce of Harlem, the marquees of the Theater District, the counterfeit stores of Chinatown, the midday crush of Herald Square. Paced hypnotically, Nares’s glacial subjects render the smallest human gestures breathtakingly theatrical. One woman, who performs the mother of all eyerolls, is immortalized as the Meryl Streep of meh; two blond preteens mug for the camera like little Lena Dunhams.
A painter, foremost, who adores sophisticated experiments with other media—his bread-and-butter work consists of large-scale canvases swooped with ribbony brushstrokes—Nares achieves the rapturous torpor of his work thanks to the sort of high-speed contraption normally used to film running cheetahs. Captured at a rate of 500 to 1,000 frames per second and only in six-second snippets (the maximum amount of time the equipment can record at such high resolution), some 16 hours of footage went into the can before it was slowed down and meticulously edited to just one hour of continuous motion. If showed in real time, the video would last only three minutes. As it is—propelled forward by its own intoxicating rhythms and a bombing guitar line from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore—the decelerated Street sustains a steady flow of trippy visuals that invite all manner of bona fide deep thoughts.
The synthetic effect of Nares’s ravishing images is like watching a laconic Harlem Shake performed by the entire borough. It’s the sort of gem glimpsed only rarely since, say, Ezra Pound’s famous imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro”—the 1912 ditty reads simply, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Street compresses memory and actuality in an extended instant. The fact that the video also functions as a time capsule led the artist, aided by the Met’s excellent photography curator, Douglas Eklund, to select some 77 works of art for exhibition alongside Street. Chosen from among the Met’s vast historical holdings and housed in rooms adjoining the projection, the objects range from mid-19th-century stop-motion photography to Francisco Goya’s gouache drawing of a beggar whose lowered gaze echoes the glares of Nares’s cagier subjects.
In the exhibition literature, Nares says that he considered subtitling Street “A film to be viewed 100 years from now”—a statement that makes perfect sense after one has experienced the video’s frieze-like quality. Nabbed with the camera lens zoomed to telephoto, Nares’s moving sidewalk of faces above all highlights the anonymous selfhood of its floating subjects. Here’s another description of how the video’s multiple tableaux slide effortlessly across a single plane: The images, Nares told an interviewer, are like “cardboard cutouts moving past each other.” That’s as good a shorthand as any for the dramatic possibilities his video distills from people’s most insignificant acts—watching a soap bubble drift away or looking down at their shoelaces—and his explanation also points up how viewers make sense of a gorgeous, disorienting, and brain-expanding time warp.