THE CLOCKTOWER GALLERY | AUGUST 10, 2011
The elevators in McKim, Mead & White’s imposing Clocktower Building go to the twelfth floor. The Clocktower Gallery is on the thirteenth. Throughout August, on the other side of an often-closed door along the gallery’s long white hallway, Will Corwin’s installation Auroch’s Library quietly grew; the artist spent the month steadily building upon a spare wooden frame. If, on August 10, one followed the course of the Tony Oursler and Mary Heilmann-outfitted corridor and was led up a narrow staircase to an apse-like fourteenth floor, just beneath one of the city’s few working turret clocks, and into a space rumored to have housed Stanford White’s red velvet swing for Evelyn Nesbit, one would have happened upon a chess match.
In a game that was something of a concluding complement to Corwin’s efforts on Auroch’s Library, International Master Irina Krush and Grandmaster Robert Hess manipulated 36 serpentine chess pieces, ranging in size from 8 to 20 inches, atop a 16-square-foot chessboard, all designed by Corwin. The pieces bore the decaying aspect of Gothic castles long left to ruin; the Clocktower Building itself seemed to be mirrored and exaggerated in their forms. The match was moderated by International Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, who conceded that, in deference to the flavor of this particular match, his commentary would be lacking in analysis of the game’s “subtler points” and he would instead offer a general primer on chess (“We try to make the best moves generally at all times in chess,” he offered at one point).
Auroch’s Library, which Corwin began during a residency in the gallery in early August, was a monument to obsession—one imagines that, had the Clocktower Gallery not imposed a deadline, Corwin could have continued expanding it for the rest of his life. Corwin’s studio was divided diagonally by two wooden, shelved axes, which he compared to rood screens; the wood and plaster products of his labors were placed atop the assembly’s planks in no discernible order and with no traceable hierarchy. A meticulously assembled plaster structure sat beside an I [HEART] DUSSELDORF mug; evocative plaster drip forms were shelved next to a paint-covered double-cassette player, which, when I first entered the room, was playing a song by Duffy. The mechanisms behind Corwin’s work, and the creature comforts that help him create, appeared to be of as much value as the products of these mechanisms.
In a purely literal sense, one could view the chess game as the fruit of Corwin’s labors; the press release announces it as such: “the culmination of Corwin’s Clocktower residency project.” But Corwin’s artistic endeavors with chess seem not to have been temporally impressed by the residency’s month-long time constraint; the match was documented on video and recorded for truncated broadcast on AIR; Corwin will make a video piece from this. He plans to continue working with chess as a subject—it performs well as an emblem of obsession. The match itself therefore seemed to me to have been as much the culmination of Auroch’s Library as Auroch’s Library is the culmination of Corwin’s work thus far: he has long trafficked in notions and expressions of a consuming work ethic, often seeking to relieve detritus and half-finished experiments of their lowly status by highlighting their value as a necessity of production.
This is not to say that the finished products are not themselves notable. The chess pieces were ingeniously attached by string to the ceiling, giving the appearance that they stemmed directly from the gears of the clock overhead; when a piece was captured, it was detached from its descending string and left dangling above the board in a kind of solemn memory of the piece’s decease: the implied brutality of chess was a foremost feature of Corwin’s chessboard.
Moreover, and perhaps most notably, the chess match—to which Krush and Hess devoted themselves with admirable sobriety, and on which Ashley, also an ESPN commentator, affably and more-than-ably guided the audience—was tremendously fun. By cultivating the relevant aspects of Clocktower’s uniquely aloof space and the discrete universe of chess logic, Corwin toyed with symbols of monumentality and exclusivity; by focusing his artistic instincts on chess, he invited the worrisome comparison to Marcel Duchamp’s and John Cage’s similarly themed efforts—and ignores them altogether (wisely, I believe: what a formidable reference; I can’t imagine the event’s levity could have withstood the weight of their invocation). The Auroch’s Library Chess Game found Corwin refusing to cloister his work’s allusions within the confines of their respective worlds: he wants his audience to follow his artistic thought process, particularly through its neurotic and excessive wendings, but he also wants them to have fun in the process. The installation’s woolly intimations and considerations didn’t coalesce into a fully coherent constellation of ideas, but this seems captious and beside the point. The greatest success of the Auroch’s Library Chess Game—although Hess’s too was well earned—was Corwin’s affecting coup against its subjects’ insularity.