The city is dead, hail the city: Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark at the Barbican

March 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

When in the mid-seventies Travis Bickle takes it unto himself to wipe clean Manhattan of all the scum of the earth, the city he drives through in his taxi is riddled with crime, drugs, and what Travis perceives as a general moral decadence. But Taxi Driver frames an urban condition that had been actually the hallmark of New York for the best part of a decade: a hotbed of class struggle, underworld turf wars and unemployment that since the late sixties unexpectedly offered ideal living and working conditions to a host of cutting-edge artists.  The retrospective Pioneers of the Downtown scene, New York 1970s at London’s Barbican Centre from March 3 to May 22 offers an inspiring insight into the work of three protagonists of a supposed golden age of spontaneous creativity.

Curator Lydia Yee explicitly drew a parallel between the recession that plunged New York into a seemingly dark decade and the current situation, possibly in the hope to underline the redemptive power of creativity even in a city in dire straits. It is indeed a generous attempt; but the richness of the exhibition itself sadly leads us to draw a bleak conclusion on today’s situation. As a matter of fact, what Anderson, Brown and Matta-Clark witnessed (and contributed to) was a momentous evolution: the death of the industrial city, and the rise of the creative economy. A shocking process to be sure, but also one that should be seen under the mark of change, rather than that of decay tout-court.

The exhibition shows many rarities that will delight the visitors who are curious to plunge into the Zeitgeist of an immediate past that somehow seems to have quickly acquired a hagiographic, mythical quality. Texts and drawings prove invaluable supports to the understanding of works that were mainly conceived as performances; by showing the carefully constructed backstage of these events, the retrospective gives them an added layer of depth that is surprising and refreshing. Much multidisciplinary art is often reduced to one-liners and gimmicky attention-catchers, and more than once I guess we all wondered whether the detractors of the genre might not actually have a point. But seeing the preparatory part of these artists’ work is a testament to their commitment that will change many a visitor’s mind. At least, this is what happened to me – I entered the exhibition very skeptical, and I exited just as skeptical, but with a new respect for the work on show.

After a teenage fleeting passion for Matta-Clark’s cuttings, I quickly became annoyed by the pretense to do art without doing art, and, above all, the strong Duchampian streak that runs through his operations. But seeing part of a cutting in its physical presence at the Barbican somehow softened my opinion – if it still seems a bit facile, it is also undeniably a strong statement, which, when seen firsthand, even reveals formal qualities and an inherent take on beauty as a fundamentally scary mixture of death and renewal.  As for Laurie Anderson, I always found her work disquieting and probably ‘meaningful’ but I could not formulate a clear thought on her production – something I should be ashamed about, as in graduate school I followed “Parkett” editors Bice Curiger and Jacqueline Burckhardt lecture extensively on Anderson’s evolution. But her writings and sketches on show helped understand the groundbreaking character of her ironic, intimate performances that range from sleeping in public places, to playing violin standing on ice blocks.

But the real revelation for me has been Trisha Brown, a choreographer who pushed the boundaries of her discipline taking dance to the streets and the rooftops of SoHo. Her pieces are raw and powerful – while the bodies of the dancers move around, it is actually the city that becomes the protagonist of the performance, staged as a decaying, fascinating organism on the verge between apocalypse and rebirth. The exhibition also features live performances by Brown’s company, performances where dance sometimes does not look like dance at all – making Brown’s demystifying work comparable to John Cage’s music of noises, or Robert Smithson’s challenge to a prereceived idea of picturesque.

Overall, the leitmotiv of the whole retrospective is the rediscovery of an urban culture. After the demise of the manicured bourgeois façade which masked the grime of the industrial city, Manhattan is in search for a new metropolitan dimension. Anarchic, irreverent, dynamic, it becomes home to an emerging class of workers dedicated to immaterial labour – namely the production of culture, knowledge, and entertainment. Between the consequences of this art scene there is the rise of punk – between its byproducts, the explosion of cultural industry in the golden eighties.

The curatorial attitude seems to tend to let the pieces speak for themselves, offering quite a neutral and restrained historical background to the adventure of the three pioneers. In principle, it is not a bad choice; it has the undeniable advantage to force the viewer to concentrate on the work. Nevertheless, the research of Anderson, Brown and Matta-Clark is so deeply embedded in a peculiar historical moment, that one feels that after forty years it might be perhaps the right time to risk drawing conclusions from that experience. If no criticism is ever moved a retrospective risks ending up being celebratory by default. And while the artworks themselves are certainly interesting, the whole phenomenon that this culture started is way more controversial than we would like to think. In the framework of macrosocial shifts of the post-fordist metropolis, artists like the ones exhibited at the Barbican, often end up becoming merely the groundbreaking element of major capital-driven urban renewal operations.

Ironically, in real estate terms they are called pioneers, too. Just not in the sense the Barbican exhibition means it. Theorists such as David Harvey and Matteo Pasquinelli have discussed at length how artist have contributed to the improvement of rent value of dilapidated areas. Artists are risk takers, they need cheap and large spaces that can be easily colonized and don’t worry too much if the neighbours are “not our kind”. This is why they thrive in rundown areas and depressed cities in transition between two stages of economic development. This is also why they are cleverly used by the smart guys in suits that have long learned the music: help the pioneers until they make the ‘hood desirable, then kick them out once the value rises and you can bring in moneyed “gentrifiers”. It happened in Rotterdam, it happened in Barcelona, and guess what, it happened in SoHo before it happened anywhere else.

So yes, this is literally an exhibition on art pioneers. A condition that, in a market economy, has its dark sides as well as its heroic ones.

(about pioneers and gentrifiers in Rotterdam and Moscow, other posts will follow).


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