Friday, April 15, 2011

The Light Touch: Dominique Gonzalez–Foerster’s “T.1912” at the Guggenheim

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster with The Wordless Music Orchestra, T.1912 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York April 14, 2011. Photo: Enid Alvarez, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011

When I read that French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster had been commissioned to create a one-night "site-specific staged audience experience" in the Guggenheim’s rotunda called T.1912, inspired by the sinking of the Titanic, it sounded, to my prejudiced ears, like a recipe for disaster. Gonzalez-Foerster’s past outings in New York have been relatively lackluster, and there was no sign that this epic spectacle, designed to accompany a performance of Gavin Bryars' piece The Sinking of the Titanic (1969–ongoing) by the Wordless Music Orchestra, would be any different.

Gonzalez-Foerster is loosely affiliated with the globetrotting relational aesthetics crew, though many of her work tend more toward immersive environments and installations than the interactive situations — read: Rirkrit Tiravanija meals — that have come to define the movement. For perhaps her best-known work, she transformed Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2008 into a science-fiction-infused refugee camp set in London in 2058, with the city engulfed in endless torrential rain. The next year, she built natural history museum–style displays at Dia's temporary space at the Hispanic Society of America, and then scattered books around inside. It was a bland display, roughly on par with her contribution to the Guggenheim's relational-aesthetics-filled "theanyspacewhatever" exhibition (2008–09), for which she walled off a portion of the rotunda with a white scrim and played an audio recording of rain along the ramp.

Last night at the Guggenheim, however, Gonzalez-Foerster engineered a remarkable experience over the course of one hour inside Frank Lloyd Wright's building, a feat that is making me think back to and reconsider all of her previous work. Visitors waited in the museum's basement theater until shortly after 8:40 pm, when the doors were opened. They were then led up along the ramps. White noise buzzed up from the central space, where the more than two-dozen members of the Wordless Music Orchestra, all wearing white, were waiting to play, blanketed with amber light cast down from the surrounding rotunda. Viewers spread out along the ramp, each person finding a spot along Wright's low handrail.

At about 9 pm, the white noise faded and a line of percussionists set to work, launching clicks and clanks and scrapes, performing the opening bars of The Sinking of the Titanic. The lights shifted to a deep blue, and then the strings entered — an octet plus a trio of cellos — all bowing long notes, individual drones combining into luxurious, slowly shifting chords that were derived from "Autumn," the Episcopal hymn that the Titanic’s band reportedly played as the ship sank into the sea. "The way the band kept playing was a noble thing," Harold Bride, a junior wireless operator told the New York Times later. "How they ever did it I cannot imagine." (According to the Wall Street Journal, there was another trio of strings stationed at the top of the ramp, though I missed that.)

As the chords continued, gliding and drifting, the musicians took turns at brief solos. A chorus of three singers, Caroline Shaw, Kate Mulvihill, and Michele Kennedy, held a series of ethereal tones, and a rumbling bass clarinet solo glided through (it could almost have been the opening lines of Gershwin's 1924 Rhapsody in Blue), as a tape of a woman’s voice, a survivor of the Titanic, her emphatic, rhythmic words measuring time. A bright white spotlight burst onto one side of the rotunda, causing a momentary pain in my eyes, which had adjusted to the darkness. Then it cascaded across the oculus at the top of the building and vanished. A handful of guides in white jackets — stewards, the program called them — motioned the audience down the ramp to the ground floor, ushering them around the musicians in a thin half-circle.

The strings continued, punctuated occasionally by solos. Double bassist Ike Sturm provided a bracing passage of improvised pizzicato, bouncing back and forth between octaves, working quietly against the tonal mass, against his fellow bassist Eleonore Oppenheim who continued with her bow, finally entering with pizzicato of her own as Strum returned to arco. (Gavin Bryars is a double bassist.) The washes of sound continued. And then they fell quickly away. The musicians rose to applause and walked off. Sixty minutes had passed. It was the 99th anniversary of the night that the ship struck the iceberg. Early in the morning, on April 15, just hours after it began taking on water, it sank.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster with The Wordless Music Orchestra, T.1912 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York April 14, 2011. Photo: Enid Alvarez, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011

Gonzalez-Foerster’s involvement had been minimal — just a few lights, a line of white life-preservers hung around one level of the rotunda, and some signage, each level labeled as a lettered deck. She had placed works by Kandinsky, Picasso, Chagall, and others, the entire "Great Upheaval" exhibition, in darkness, and those icons had taken on eerie and uncanny qualities, but the experience had not been grandiose or melodramatic, the silent dangers of any all–encompassing museum experience. The temptation in such circumstances is to try to make "the big statement," as Rem Koolhaas said it in an interview last year in Artforum, discussing the Tate’s Unilever Series. Koolhaas added that all those works presented in the Turbine Hall "seem to bear an apocalyptic message" and cited as one of his examples Gonzalez-Foerster’s "postdisaster camp," a phrase that I have to read as a pun. Last night, she elegantly and easily sidestepped such a caricature. T.1912 was haunting and spiritually rich.

Discussing Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 Turbine Hall project, art historian James Meyer writes that it "delivers a mass audience that cannot fail to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the installation itself." He adds that, in contemporary art, size "is often marshaled to overwhelm and pacify." Gonzalez-Foerster, in sharp contrast, manipulated space throughout the evening in T.1912 using only lights and the members of her audience, utilizing scale in the way that Meyer says Charles Ray's work does, "in the phenomenological sense as a formal quality capable of inducing awareness and provoking thought." We began in a crowded theater and were then spread along a dark winding ramp, looking down at the performance and out at our fellow viewers who stretched around the rotunda. We ended on the sprawling floor below, together, in the center of it all.

Also: NPR has a complete recording of a 2008 performance of Bryars' Sinking of the Titanic.

No comments: