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A review by Carmen Nasr for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Prior to its metamorphic gentrification into a trendy acronym, New York’s Soho, (South of Houston street), was once a dilapidated corner of 1970’s Manhattan gradually descending into a lengthy phase of urban disintegration. Devastated by economic decline, high unemployment and the disappearance of its manufacturing industries, the cavernous spaces of its industrial landscape became the haunts and homes of the pioneering artists of what is now referred to as the ‘Downtown Scene’. For this exhibition, the work of three of its leading figures is brought together at the Barbican in an exciting and diverse collection of sculpture, performance, drawings, film, archival footage, notes and sketches. Featuring both seminal and rarely seen pieces, the exhibition weaves the work of Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark into an intriguing fabric of urban dereliction, performance, process and experimentation.
Walking into the gallery, the vast loft spaces abandoned by industry, and the potent context of the urban environment in the artists’ work, are echoed by the spacious architecture of the exposed stone grey Barbican gallery space. Atmospheric and anarchic, Anderson, Brown and Matta-Clark’s work is a response to their urban environment, with an emphasis on socio-political dimensions, as well as process and experimentation. With an overriding sense of gesture, the exhibition pays homage to the artists’ daring and pioneering approach to their respective genres. Taking art out of the gallery, dance off the stage and sculpture down from the pedestal, they re-claimed the dereliction of the city by taking over its roofs, fire escapes, hollow buildings, and boarded up houses with their art.
Renowned choreographer and artist Trisha Brown’s Roof and Fire Piece (1973) alluringly captures the innovative relationship between gesture and the urban landscape at the heart of her work. Presented through photographs, film and other documentation in the ‘Downtown New York’ section, the piece begins with a panoramic shot over the rooftops of the decaying city structures. Slowly figures begin to emerge from the skyline, perched on the roofs of buildings, performing methodical and structured gestures that are subsequently repeated by the next performer on the next building, until the rooftops of twelve buildings are graced with motion. In another section exploring the emergence of drawing as a prominent medium among all three artists, due to its cheapness and portability, a series of Brown’s drawings, performance plans and sketches unlock the dimension of process and experimentation key to her aesthetic. A series of dance movements are plotted onto drawings of cubes, embracing a certain fluidity between the visual, structural and performative.
Gordon Matta-Clark, an architect by trade among the trio, truly shines in the section entitled ‘Urban Interventions’: an intriguing collection of sculpture, photography and film expressing Matta-Clark’s ‘poetic critique of the architecture of urban space.’ Much of his work centres on the ‘deconstruction’ of the urban landscape, in the form of cutting off segments of buildings. In Splitting (1974) Matta-Clark split a whole house in two. Captured and displayed on film and photograph, he described the event as a ‘dance with a building’ – infusing movement into the static. The four top corners of that very house sit in a room of the gallery, sliced off with remarkable precision. Granting access to the layers, crevices and pockets of space usually out of reach, the sculpture combines the structural and functional with the personal elements of the building - the visible sections of painted walls evoking the nameless and faceless lives that once occupied the abandoned structure. In a similar vein Bronx Floors (1972-1973) presents cuttings of the floors of derelict houses, several layers of typically seventies linoleum revealing themselves to the observer. Both truly absorbing pieces, championing the glory of the everyday and reclaiming the purely functional as artistic expression, the sculptures emerge as personal favourites.
Laurie Anderson’s work is rooted in sound, although out of the three artists, her work traverses the boundaries between artistic disciplines most prolifically. Presented as a series of photographs, Duets on Ice (1974-75) documents Anderson’s performances on the streets on Manhattan in which she played the violin while wearing ice skates set in blocks of ice. The performance ended when the ice had completely melted. The piece is immersed in the urban landscape, interacting with the conditions of its climate, ground and human traffic. In the Institutional Dream series (1972-1973) Anderson deliberately falls asleep in various locations around New York in an attempt to discover whether this will affect the contents of her dreams. Dreams of being engulfed by water while sleeping on Coney Island beach and the sensation of ducking under structures while dozing in a courtroom, weave the movement of the landscape into the subconscious. Through this dimension of human immersion, Anderson waves elements of the personal and playful into the fabric of the city, and, the exhibition as a whole.
Along with the overwhelmingly diverse collection of work on display, four performances (three of Brown’s pieces and one of Matta-Clark’s) take place throughout the day on the lower level of the gallery. One is performed every hour, and if you do time your visit to see one of them, be sure to make it Brown’s Walking on the Wall (1971). Hanging from harnesses attached to a track, performers are suspended horizontally against the gallery walls, walking up and down, jumping over the corners, pausing and reversing – the illusion is mesmerising. In a display of Brown’s ‘impossible architecture’, the powerful context of the urban surroundings in her work is at its most captivating.
A tantalising journey into a truly daring cultural period, in which the pioneering, immersive installation and performance art emerged which has shaped modern western artistic expression ever since. Pioneers of the Downtown Scene provides not only a thorough education about this defining period, but an authentic glimpse into a now extinct era when art truly ruled the city.
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