The Language of Things
CITY HALL PARK | JUNE 29, 2016 – SEPTEMBER 29, 2016
The city speaks a variety of languages. Across the 468.9 square miles of our five boroughs, this variety reflects ethnic, class, religious, racial difference, as well as differences in occupational specialization, age, sexual orientation, and countless other identifications. Language emerges in a different sense in the city’s rhythms, in the style and pace of life in its neighborhoods. Downtown around City Hall Park, where the Public Art Fund currently presents The Language of Things, an exhibition of sculptural works, the various rhythms spoken by the city include those of tourists, street performers, and office workers—not to mention that particular rhythm of summertime city heat that expresses itself in shared encounters of sound, stench, and sweat.
The visitor’s first impression of this exhibition will differ depending on where he or she enters the park. I’ve decided to enter from the east side, because I’ve taken the 4 train from Crown Heights to get here. From that entry, Carol Bove and Michael Dean’s attention to material conjunctures gives a gnomic first impression. Bove’s Lingam (2015) juxtaposes wood and steel just as I’m starting to hear the jackhammers on the street through the trees. The sculpture implies a syntax—if not a normative grammar—of materials. Dean’s 4sho (Working Title) (2016) gives the impression of a material more languorous than the white concrete of which it’s composed. It evokes contemporary text-speak in its hieroglyphic form and flirts with a trash aesthetic (it seems it could be made of HVAC piping, propped up but folding over under its own weight, height, and lack of structural integrity).
Leaving Bove and Dean’s sculptures behind, I’m skirting the shade along the edges of the trees around the park’s fountain, wondering where the female vocalist Tino Sehgal has charged with serenading passers-by could be. He calls the vocal performance This You (2016). A woman makes eye contact with me as I pass, and intones something sotto voce. This me? Is it she? I’m still not sure.
South of the park’s central fountain, I can make out what must be Adam Pendleton’s Untitled (Code Poem) (2016) gathered in front of the main entrance of the park. The work is a collection of large black concrete circles, squares, and dashes each slightly smaller than a bench; taken together, they mimic Morse code (though Pendleton has obscured his message by devising his own system of dots and dashes). Pace Gallery’s Blackness in Abstraction show, on view in Chelsea through August 19, includes a smaller set from this series, though the shapes there are the size of paving stones and are highly polished and reflective. Yet, the size of these shapes in the park does not deter children from using them as giant stepping-stones, jumping from one to the next. The children are fulfilling a minimalist promise of bodies and space and interaction, so that reference is there, too, happily.
I’m looking around now for a piece that should accompany Pendleton’s. He has taken his title and inspiration from the New York “clairvoyant” poet and performance artist Hannah Weiner. Several of her own Code Poems (1968), once I find them, are set on panels in a center island of mulch, flowers, and bushes. The panels look like they should provide family, genus, and species. Weiner wrote these poems inspired by sign systems like Morse code and maritime semaphore code, in which sailors communicate by flag signals. The poems are by turns funny, ironic, and lyrical. Members of the Coast Guard performed them in Central Park in 1968. Though no documentation exists of that performance, it must have been spectacular, with uniforms, flags, and flashing lights. The choice not to restage such a performance of the poems in City Hall Park is a missed opportunity. Weiner’s memory, work, and reputation have been on the rise again for several years in the poetry world, but she deserves her place, too, in the art historical narrative of the late 1960s and 1970s in this city. (A PDF of the collection of these poems, not published until 1982, is available online.)
To the west side of the fountain, Claudia Comte’s The Italian Bunnies (2016) glisten in the sunlight filtering through the trees. They repeat and echo, light bouncing back and around, and I’m feeling the rhythm of their polished marble. Buried up to their ears, I’m thinking, ready for me to pull them out of a hat. A hybrid warren of rabbits, Henry Moore meets Louise Bourgeois. Smooth but muscular, though perhaps this description accounts more for the power of the sculptor, who often works with a chainsaw, than for the sculpture. I want to stand with them, touch them, but the chain is up, and the grass needs its rest.
On the other side of the path, the chain is down, and the grass trampled where others have entered Chris Watson’s Ring Angels (2014). Like a grove of trees, or standing stones, four speakers stand hoisted up on tall poles in a circle. Entering it, and here comes the surprise, the world outside goes mute, and all I can hear is the song of birds (starlings) and the sounds of their aerial maneuvers. As the felt sound moves around me from birdsong to the violent rush of wings in unified flight, the bunny ears menace, as well, from across the path. I feel cast somewhere between the uncanny and the sublime until one outer sound pierces through the sonic field of Watson’s work. An FDNY SUV wails, stuck in traffic, outside the park on Broadway.
Walking back up around the fountain, my suspected vocalist is talking to a younger woman about singing and hitting certain high notes. After a while, they walk off together out of the gate onto Park Row. I’m watching them go.
And what of those other first impressions? What might have gone lost in the spatial translation of my movement through the park? Entering from the main gate, along the south end of the park, the impression must seem altogether monumental in encountering the work by Pendleton, supported by the archive of poems by Weiner. And, from the west side, the first-time viewer might latch onto the playful reverie of Watson and Comte’s works. The exhibition speaks different languages but to ecumenical effect for the listening viewer who pays closer attention to the rhythms and cadences of these languages rather than to their foreign grammars.
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.