Night at the Museum

New York

Left: View of Pierre Huyghe, Opening. Right: View of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers, NY. 2022. (All photos: Kristopher McKay)

“LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE” is the way Pierre Huyghe described the effect he was after when he blacked out the Guggenheim’s cavernous interior for the Opening event he staged the Friday evening before last; the artist’s contribution to the museum’s current all-over exhibition, “theanyspacewhatever,” required viewers to sport tiny headlights to navigate the building’s spiral ramp. In recalling the familiar holiday emblem, Huyghe referred to the way the decorative lights disappear the tree’s branches and boughs, leaving behind only the fragrance of pine and a disembodying pinpoint constellation. An evocative rendering commissioned by the artist, one of a dozen or so contained in a deceptively modest book of transfer images that serves as Huyghe’s secondary contribution to the exhibition, illustrates this mental image. As if to offer a guide, on the night of the event, Nancy Spector, the exhibition’s curator, could be found, sans headgear, taping the image to one of the lower ramp ledges. A little farther up the ramp, holding light and a notebook in one hand, New York Times critic Roberta Smith stood squinting down at the darkened mezzanine, where Rirkrit Tiravanija’s multichannel, videotaped interviews with his relational peers had been quieted for the evening’s event.

The event, as it happened, was impressive, and shot through with magic; but it was also flawed. Or to use the artist’s disclaimer: compromised. (That compromise, which the artist anticipated in an earlier conversation, stemmed from the impossibility—for security reasons—of making the museum truly pitch-black.) In situ, the problem seemed more that the required equipment—the clumsy headband lights viewers were required to wear—was an encumbrance and made it difficult for viewers to, well, view. The overall effect was not quite as transporting as the Christmas-tree source Huyghe suggested, nor as elegantly theatrical as his transfer-book image. (It also evoked the premise of David Hammons’s 2002 “Concerto in Black and Blue,” in which visitors to Ace Gallery were given blue fiber-optic flashlights with which to navigate the darkened space, though it’s worth noting that the disorienting impact of Hammons’s installation had more to do with its complete unexpectedness, and the artist’s elusive, “just do it” surreptitiousness—an inverse of Huyghe’s modus operandi, in which everything is advertised, and spectacle is assumed.) But experiencing the museum as a sort of spectral mine, at some predawn hour—feeling out the space rather than tracing the spiral optically—worked to enhance the social hivelike possibility the Guggenheim’s open interior invites. The movement of those concentrated, head-held glares of light was wonderfully fluid, leaving barely perceptible trails, like slow-motion traffic in time-lapse film.

Up top, people got into playing shadow games on Jorge Pardo’s maze of Swiss-cheese dividers, and the darkness amplified sound, as darkness will do, making any unexpected noise scary. So when a photographer dropped a lens, the crowd audibly shivered and roared. For an all-too-brief moment, the evening’s tenor of uncertain, self-conscious curiosity broke open, allowing the advertised “disruption” and “disorientation” of the museum space to kick in. But that one real moment only intensified the sense of anxious and, ultimately, disappointed anticipation, which became the evening’s de facto subject.

At his unabashedly spectacular 2005 Public Art Fund event, brilliantly sited at the old Wollman Rink, with the “naturally” cinematic, glittery skyline of Central Park South looming as backdrop, viewers served as both players and witnesses to the filming of Huyghe’s Antarctic adventure, A Journey That Wasn’t. Though the preparations for Huyghe’s Guggenheim event were quite fastidious—both lights and electronic displays were shut off, every street-level window blacked out, and off-ramp installations locked—somehow, the Guggenheim’s protected interior, coupled with Huyghe’s reticence, made his generically titled Opening and its abstract “anyspacewhatever” context more of an anti-event.

The sense of uncertain but upbeat anticipation resurfaced at 8 PM, as the lights came up and much of the audience turned round to descend into the museum’s subterranean theater for Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers’s world premiere of the theatrical performance NY. 2022. Billed as an original work, the performance was actually built backward: The powerfully affecting final act was conceived for the 2007 festival “Il Tempo del Postino,” held in Manchester, and the opening set piece, featuring a stationary cyclist set beneath a modest, inverted cross, mimicked an earlier performance by Maurizio Cattelan.

The forty-five minutes that followed, featuring alternately endearing and awkwardly symbolic set pieces, cast members showering naked, and an almost too-poignant orchestral version of Beethoven’s Sixth, were suffused with a mix of nostalgia and déjŕ vu, evincing as they did the sort of earlier-generation self-consciousness almost inextricably associated with avant-garde performance. Most of the cast for NY. 2022 mingled inconspicuously with the audience until they performed. At one point, a number of these scattered players opened bags of candy, noisily passing them from seat to seat, in another familiar, much-ado gesture of convention flouting.

For all the strained efforts at symbolism and allusion—a water bottle serving as “last water” for the sexy shower scene; the noisy cooking of “last food,” inspired by the insidious cannibalism of the movie Soylent Green; and fair-maiden models in Balenciaga gowns making battery-operated music on children’s toy instruments also inspired by that film—the chorus of elderly actors singing achingly corny songs ever-so-carefully off-key, and the Staten Island Orchestra musicians dutifully departing on silent cue, were truly, deeply affecting. Perhaps more to the point, as you caught on to the plaintive logic of the emptying stage and diminishing performance, you began to calculate exactly how many musicians it takes to make an ensemble.

Though Huyghe’s aesthetics are acutely imagistic, and Gonzalez-Foerster’s are primarily auricular, the two are tied together by a shared sense of self-conscious conflictedness. Indeed, the same could be said for the majority of “theanyspacewhatever’s” artists. Only Cattelan appears exempt: Even when a given work fails, his gesture is invariably confident. His fallen Disney-style Pinocchio sculpture, floating facedown in the museum’s elegant wishing pond, offers the exhibition’s most singular image.

Spector’s show, then, is brave, but not brave enough. Or perhaps it mistakes wishful thinking for the erratic and eccentric utopianism that animates the best of these artists’ works. The fact that the conceit ostensibly linking these artists, the much-maligned, rarely elaborated concept of “relational aesthetics,” is never mentioned by name only reinforces this deep-seated ambivalence. This is not just because the artists assembled here, like most designated art-world groups, are, in spite of their protests, in fact a group. It’s that the group, like any celebrated group, comprises a gaggle of outsize, if unusually generous, egos, which Spector seems at pains to contain. Pressed to elaborate on their “groupiness,” Huyghe, and several others, questioned the exhibition’s timing—in recent years, individual ambitions and reputations have created a dynamic that is no longer one of collaboration. As Huyghe himself noted, citing cohort Liam Gillick, “The only problem with ‘relational aesthetics’ is the word relational.”

Linda Norden