Shining Armory

Artists Carrie Mae Weems and Jason Moran. (All photos: Da Ping Luo)

THE PARK AVENUE ARMORY has two consistent modes: The first is to overwhelm; the second is to inspire a quiet conviction that you’re missing something amazing in another part of the building.

Both struck with full force recently during the Shape of Things, a massive convening to mark the end of Carrie Mae Weems’s yearlong residency. Weems invited dozens of participants “to join her in a critique of our tumultuous political and social climate,” filling the gilded, schizo-baroque rooms and halls with a dazzling mix of artists, thinkers, and impresarios. The word “critique” is perhaps misleading; every conversation and talk I heard was oriented toward productive alternatives rather than empty negation. It was more than “critique.” I saw exploration, variation, and organization, a conscious reflection on the urgent need for new strategies and pathways in response to a violent and demanding present.

Weems assembled friends, colleagues, and allies drawn from years of careful, intimate, often uncharted work. Many had worked together before, or at least inspired one another. During her performance, Anna Deavere Smith noted, “You know what it’s like, everybody here is an artist.” After, Weems observed that the event itself was inspired by similar convenings Smith had organized decades prior. It was this collective respect that made the day a meshwork of distinctive but connected practices, rather than a laundry list of egos. I felt lucky to be in attendance.

The armory has hosted a number of my favorite art events and installations in the past few years, including Paul McCarthy’s odoriferous W/S and Ryoji Ikeda’s Transfinite, not to mention a Y-3 runway show that ended with Yohji Yamamoto mock-sumo-wrestling his models. But the building’s slightly broken opulence combined with its rarified Upper East Side location, and the sheer scale of its projects, can convey a sense that the art is merely a tribute to the financial and public success of the artist as a public brand. That was not the case with the Shape of Things.

Aja Monet in the main staircase.

The building’s size made the event more spatial than temporal or thematic. Weems, Smith, Shirin Neshat, and many others performed or spoke on the largest stage in the Officers Room; the Colonel’s Room across the hall hosted moderated conversations; while the Tiffany-designed Veterans Room hosted perfectly brief individual presentations. Upstairs, no fewer than fourteen different spaces were busy with dancing, a marathon reading of Leaves of Grass, delicate and touching puppetry from Basil Twist, and Weems’s film work. At one end of the hall, the fascinatingly torn-up antique locker room was occupied only by a large nkondi sculpture and a little table with labels inviting visitors to write their “political desires.” Between the north and south wings was the armory’s overpriced and understocked snack bar, to remind us where we were.

It surely took quite a budget, and quite a few people keeping track of spreadsheets, to make this extraordinary celebration of contemporary black creativity a reality. Unlike W/S or The Transfinite or Robert Wilson’s biography of Marina Abramović starring Marina Abramović, there was a clear sense that the event would extend its advantages beyond the artists whose names were on display and the public who could afford to attend. Weems’s generosity and insistence on sharing her success were constant themes. If the overdriven excesses of contemporary capitalism have made “selling out” obsolete, perhaps that’s because communal survival strategies put less emphasis on where the money comes from than on where it ends up going. “The biggest illusion is that we live in scarcity,” said poet and activist Aja Monet, in conversation with Nona Hendryx and Kimberly Drew. “That’s capitalism’s greatest lie. We live in abundance.”

What many of the participants share with Weems is a careful, sensitive practice that explores lived pain and historical trauma without victimizing or sensationalizing. In a day full of vivid images, rigorous historicism, and justified outrage, at no point did I feel like the art wanted to shock or settle for mere indignation. Everyone, as far as I could tell, was there to learn, to teach, or to hang out with friends, and artists shifted roles as they moved between the rooms. This convocation, this sharing and making, was a point of departure and not a self-satisfied conclusion. “There’s a lot of pain,” Weems said toward the end of the day. “But all of these extraordinary artists are showing us how to move.”