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A Quiet Incursion in Queens: Public Art as Infiltrator and Saboteur

By the time you find Pepón Osorio’s piece in a back section of the Queens Botanical Garden, you will probably have received a number of curious looks from the volleyball players nearby. After you’ve passed the construction fence remaining from a refurbishment of a nearby underpass, head for the patch of tall reeds. In the middle you will discover a dead tree given new life by the artist, who attached boughs of leaves marked with the fingerprints of children from Queens.

If you visit Robyn Love’s and Rina Banerjee’s works at the Ganesãnjali Hindu Temple on a day when the place is abuzz with worshipers and those buying incense and CD's in the tent outside, you will want to follow the admonishing signs on the fence and take your shoes off before you try to locate Banerjee’s Saran Wrap slippers.

You are really taking your chances if you want to see Mia Wood’s intervention in storefronts along Roosevelt Avenue under the elevated train tracks. Wood created postcards based on interviews she conducted at Kennedy’s Airport’s INS office, including a hat that said “Man With No Family” and a pillow embroidered with the phrases “I dream I am back in my country. They are trying to kill me. I dream of my mother.” My understanding is that these postcards were installed in the first few weeks of the show, but they have mostly disappeared. Workers at the stores often have no idea what you are looking for.

In addition to these four artists’ site-specific works, the current exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art, titled Crossing the Line, includes fifteen other artists’ pieces in locations around the borough. Some of these artists have components or documentation of their off-site works within the exhibition spaces at the museum, among pieces by about 25 other artists, depending on how you count them. The show is the most ambitious project in the history of the institution, which has thus far been hindered by its far-from-Manhattan location, the usual lack of funding, and a building that is overwhelmed by the Panorama of the City of New York, which occupies an enormous coliseum at the heart of the building. The art has to make do in the small, oddly proportioned spaces that remain around the panorama. This show is the baby of Valerie Smith, curator at the Museum since 1999, and previously curator of the similar and much-praised “Sonsbeek 93” in Holland. Her appointment indicated to many that the Museum was charting a more contemporary course than their collection of Tiffany lamps and World Fair memorabilia suggested. Since the opening of this show, the board has axed the old-school director and head of development, giving further hope to some who think the QMA can become an institution with a major and regular contemporary presence. Crossing the Line is the museum’s first substantial attempt to move in that direction.

What is odd about this show, then, is that its most provocative experiences occur outside of the museum, and inevitably lead to a line of questioning that implicates the museum’s traditional role in how contemporary art—particularly public art—is viewed, supported, and evaluated. This should be a fairly revelatory event for most New Yorkers, since art in our public spaces tends to be plopped down in plazas, corporate lobbies, or hotel atriums. We relate to these works architecturally, largely because of their scale and an underlying philosophy that derives from an architectural, planned conception of public space. Public art works are big things that need to be commissioned, requiring permits and bureaucratic support. In short, they are usually conceived of an experienced as components of the city’s physical, constructed spatial system.

There are plenty of other possibilities. Public art could just as easily inhabit our social or commercial space, existing less as objects than as interactions. Think of an artists like Cildo Meireles, who added anti-capitalist labels to empty Coke bottles and returned them for deposit, thereby inserting his messages into circulation in a product-driven cycle of interaction between the artists and the consuming public. And what of the Internet? Or phone lines? Can’t art be made for virtual public space?

The rare thing occurring in Crossing the Line is that the communities within which the art is situated assume, with varying levels of contribution, an implicit curatorial presence. Additionally, the show allows for art that is discreet, and in some cases, only fleetingly present. There are pieces that are performed as a unique event, film screenings, temporary bus stop posters, and even a one-night sleepover at the museum. Brian Tolle’s lighting installation on the abandoned Philip Johnson-designed towers from the 1964 World’s Fair almost seems to make fun of big public art. Inspired by the towers’ original lighting, his blue globe lights emerge ethereally at dusk and dissolve the rusting, inaccessible relics into floating discs. Additional strobe lights on the towers suggest camera flashbulbs, conceptually reversing the spectacle: the borough itself becomes the subject, the focus of the ghostly tourists alluded to by the strobes. The tower lights are alluded to by the strobes. The tower lights are experienced only after sunset, but in a variety of ways. They are passed by Manhattanites in their cars going to and from weekend houses on Long Island, glimpsed from LaGuardia Airport planes, regarded from the park below by local residents, and most recently, climbed by three drunk young men from the nearby neighborhoods of Corona and Flushing. They were eventually rescued by police helicopter.

These different encounters are inherently tied to class, suggesting an interesting mode within which to generally consider many of the other off-site pieces in the show. The exhibition and its viewers can each be divided roughly into two sections that when juxtaposed, create four different scenarios of spectatorship: 1) work in the museum viewed by regular museum-goers, 2) work in the museum viewed by visitors who do not often attend museums, 3) site-specific work in the community viewed by regular museum-goers, and 4) site-specific work in the community viewed by visitors who do not often attend museums. These scenarios are of interest because most regular art museum visitors in New York tend to be educated, middle-class, and white, and because this show locates a large portion of its pieces in less-affluent, less-educated, and predominantly non-white sections of the community. Certainly many museum regulars will have some familiarity with art history and contemporary art; some will recognize artists in the show, and be able to situate the current work within the context of the artists’ careers. Visitors who are passing through Corona Park and just wander in will tend to be from surrounding communities, and will likely, though not necessarily, have less familiarity with art history and contemporary art. But it is the community-based sites that are most interesting. Regular museum-goers will arrive either by tour van from the museum or on their own, armed with the museum’s map and directions to each site. A good portion of these viewers, however, will hopefully be local residents who stumble upon them accidentally, or visit them out of a curiosity to see what the tourists are looking at. Those who don’t notice the explanatory signs posted nearby are unlikely to realize that they are encountering art. There’s something exciting in that, but what, exactly?

The relationship between host communities and art located within them is often charged by the overwhelmingly political history of low-level community-based public art. The collectives Gran Fury, Political Art Documentation, Group Material, and REPOhistory, for example, have employed billboards, posters, and street signs as activist artworks. Ironically, the necessarily adversarial nature of many of these pieces isolated them from viewers. The same problems affect many of the QMA pieces. More than half of the signs that Nari Ward placed at religious institutions around the borough had been relocated to the museum grounds after objections from their sponsoring sites. Rina Banerjee’s slippers have repeatedly been removed from their location at the temple, and were not present when I visited. Banerjee had wrapped sacred texts into the slippers, thereby mingling them with dirty feet and prompting the ire of temple authorities. The descriptive sign on the site notes that this reaction shows how notions of tradition and authenticity are fluid concepts that can be shifted to suit specific situations. Robyn Love had to hang her small, beautifully made banner on the community center adjacent to the temple after similar objections. These works, including the way they changed in the course of their development and exhibition in response to community stimuli, are among the show’s best. But I, of course, write from the position of the regular museum-goer, and have been conditioned to appreciate art’s ability to challenge value systems. Does the Hindu congregation have a better opinion about art after this experience? Do they think that a work that preys on their beliefs is valuable to their community? There is a point at which community-based art defeats itself by taking advantage of the generosity of its hosts.

A different but related question is whether artists need the sanctioned support of institutions to do community-based work. Institutional affiliation isn’t necessarily relevant to a project’s success, but it certainly provides wider recognition and often financing for production costs. While some artists certainly seek out community-based projects on their own, many begin with an institutional commission. Museum interest in branding community-based art coincided with the incursion of 1990s diversity politics into the art establishment and the rise of institutional critique as art practice. Sponsorship of site-specific art in the community became a way for museums to display their commitment to education, outreach, and diversity. But this effort is somewhat self-defeating. By sponsoring such projects, museums effectively place themselves in the position of vetting work outside as well as inside their walls, dictating the kinds of art that can and should be located in the community. The debate about the institutional determination of aesthetic quality, and by extension, the museum’s role in sustaining class structure, spills into the streets.

Within the museum, it is a different story. Many museums enjoy displaying self-critical work, with the hope of seeming able to laugh at themselves. Implicit in this is a desire to appear responsive to concerns about their support for an art history that is increasingly viewed as class- and race-biased. Fred Wilson, who is included in the Queens show, has built a career around museums’ attraction to masochistic self-critique. Wilson’s works tend to examine the class and racial distinctions inherent in the politics of collecting, display, and spectatorship. With the notable exception of a brilliant community-based installation he did in North Carolina in which he located and highlighted the discarded gravestones of black residents, Wilson works mostly within the confines of the institution, exposing fault lines and biases within traditional modes of display at museums like the Seattle Museum of Art or, most poignantly, at the Maryland Historical Society. Here, Wilson relies more upon personal memory. He combines pictures of himself as a child at the World’s Fair with concurrent newspaper photographs documenting civil rights violence, which he knew little or nothing about at the time. At the end of the gallery is a series of scrims that conceal a cast of Michelangelo’s Pietà (the original of which was exhibited at the Fair), periodically lighted to allow the sculpture to appear as if in a mist of nostalgic wonder.

Downstairs, Brandon Ballengée has assembled a substantial collection of fish from Flushing fish markets that will undoubtedly appear shockingly exotic to many visitors, especially when they realize that these fish were sold to be eaten. He has supposedly located some species that are not in the exhaustive files of the Museum of Natural History, and rumor has it that they are negotiating to purchase the piece.

Mark Dion brings castoffs of earlier New Yorkers into the museum with one of his pseudo-archaeological digs in the Great Ash Dump. Many of his artifacts hint at the class of their original owners, though few definitively. It is rather his archaeological methodology that displays a class-bound paradigm of understanding the world—one that is inextricable from the history of connoisseurship and the very idea of the museum, which originated in bourgeois and upper-class European culture as it found things of interest under all kinds of foreign soil. Brought into the museum, Dion’s fragmentary objects hold out the possibility of being made and not simply unearthed and organized. Would they seem more of less wondrous stumbled upon in a field or abandoned lot?

Much of the beauty in Crossing the Line lies in this space between the chance encounter with an object and the attended spectacle. Manhattanites will come, prompted by some press coverage in the papers they read. They will wander through the museum, and then they will head out in the tour van to see the off-site works. Poised and expectant, they may mistake certain things they see for art. That possibility is, of course, just as exciting as the drunken men scaling the towers crowned by Tolle’s light installation. One can’t help but imagine them staring up in fuzzy wonder at the spectacle hundreds of feet above them. Who is up there, and how did they get there? The result in both cases is that the exhibition’s art ceases to be an extension of the museum. Instead, it acts chiefly to provoke a heightened aesthetic awareness—a suspicion, even—compelling people to look differently at their neighborhood, or for some, at a neighborhood they’d never think of living in. Art becomes a truly guerrilla medium, infiltrating daily life, possibly lurking around very corner. It sabotages your visual understanding of the world. You have to be on guard, on the lookout.

These kinds of shows may dissolve even further away from a centralized institution. Museums may decide that the best way for them to become involved in surrounding communities may paradoxically be through the sponsorship of pieces that are never identified or explained, but that by their simple presence, encourage a higher level of aesthetic introspection and spectatorship. Would this strip art of its function to engage and question values? Not necessarily. Take Ellen Harvey, for example, who has managed to make discreet, community-based work with wide implications. For her recent “New York Beautification Project,” she painted very small and detailed romantic landscapes on walls around the city. Some of these paintings were quickly destroyed, but some were oddly protected. They exist on an immediate, personal level, refusing to position themselves as more aesthetically valuable than a community’s mural paintings or graffiti.
I don’t know how the QMA’s board will judge the success of Crossing the Line, since attendance, the conventional gauge of success, is difficult to measure with work spread all over the borough. But attendance is a statistic that should be of little concern to the museum; the show’s accomplishments are multiple, and difficult to quantify. Together, Crossing the Line and its host communities point to a weak spot in the class barriers perpetuated by the art establishment, and offer a more intimate relationship between artist and viewer, between art object and vernacular visual culture, between people and neighborhoods. That, at least, is something that none of the major Manhattan art museums, or the communities around them, can accomplish any time soon.

Just think: right now there are people stumbling upon art, or the not-art of everyday life, and stopping to see a bit better what is before their eyes. Rina Banerjee’s missing slippers may be sitting hidden in a Hindu home in Flushing, cherished by their pilferer. Or imagine the men in the police station after their helicopter ride, filled with disbelief: there was nobody up there—it was just a bunch of flashing lights.

— Peter Eleey

Crossing the Line is at the Queens Museum of Art through October 7


Peter Eleey


The Brooklyn Rail


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