Class Act

New York

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, T.1912, 2011. Performance views, Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 14, 2011. (Photos: Enid Alvarez)

LAST THURSDAY was the ninety-ninth anniversary of the crash of the Titanic. How did you observe it? At the Guggenheim, to commemorate the disaster, artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster staged T.1912, billed in detail as “a site-specific staged audience experience in the museum’s rotunda. Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic will be at the core of the installation, performed by The Wordless Music Orchestra. Boarding closes at 8:40 PM and 10:40 PM.” The wreck-fest nicely links to “The Great Upheaval,” a current exhibition featuring the Titanic-era tableaux of Der Blaue Reiter.

I attended the “First Class Dinner and Boarding,” a “Titanic-inspired three-course dinner” in the Guggenheim’s “award-winning restaurant, The Wright,” where Ben Whine graciously greeted me at the door.

“Are you the maître d’? Captain of the ship?”

“I’m the director of development,” he replied affably and glided me toward the bar, where I felt conspicuous not knowing anyone. The swanky, cliquey-feeling room was filled with mostly ladies, very Upper East Side–looking and “done.”

One of them picked up on my aura of insecurity:

“You’re going to have a great time!” predicted my new psychic friend. “You look great! I love your shoes,” my rescuer enthused. “A couple of girlfriends and I decided, ‘Why not do this?’ ” She nodded toward another blonde not-smiling at the bar: “It’ll be fun.” Grateful, I shifted into mingle cruise control.

A couple approached me. From Connecticut, talking up the Greenwich Art Fair. They said they’d been in publishing.

“I’m from Artforum,” I divulged.

“Hard to read,” declared the chap.

“Well, I try not to be too boring.”

“I like the ads. Journalism doesn’t pay very much,” he informed me. “But you get fringe benefits like this.” He gestured at the room filled with art appreciators about to eat their “First Class Dinner.”

A friend said later: “It’s like the first thing he thought of was: ‘How much money do you make doing that?’ Basically rich-people dick-measuring.”

Dinner was lovely. I was seated near a Parisian art book publisher who scoped the sleek white moderne dining room of the Wright, a curvy, compact, yachtlike space: “A lot of ladies. Who are they?” He pointed at me, teasing, “Hipsters!”

“They’re rich people.” It was safe to assume, at $350 per person. (The invite said, “$233 is tax-deductible.”)

“Bohemians!” he pressed on.

Well, it costs a lot to be a bohemian these days.

“Will you be in Venice?” I was asked several times. “Are you going to Basel?”

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, T.1912, 2011. Performance views, Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 14, 2011. (Photos: Enid Alvarez)

After the grub, it was time to “board”: “What will the audience-participation be?” I doubted it would involve any liquid splashing around the Kandinskys. 303 Gallery’s Lisa Spellman, there to “support Dominique,” was a trove of Titanic trivia. A reporter from the Daily News grilled her, taking copious notes. Spellman seemed very tuned in to the disaster’s resonance for us today: “the inequality” represented by the third-class passengers who mostly perished because they were architecturally segregated from the lifeboats. With crummy access to the scarce lifelines, they hardly had a chance.

We were escorted to the elevators and released at “The First Class Deck” at the pinnacle of the Gugg, where a private bar continued the special treatment. Down in the rotunda, “a ghost orchestra” was dressed all in white. “Lower-class” ticket holders lined the galleys below. In the First Class bubble, we hadn’t been aware of any other guests. The dimly lit space, now rimmed with “passengers,” was the Titanic where “the band played on” as it did, supposedly, during the famous disaster. The music was haunting and stately.

About midway through, people were quietly “evacuated” from the lower decks of the “ship.” Some streamed up to “First Class.” Some massed down at the base of the rotunda, like a dark swarm of Jonahs against the white whale–like void of the museum. The elegiac music played on as the audience scattered, everyone inconvenienced except First Class, in an effective and not-at-all-messy evocation of the wreck. From my perch, I thought of all the people who perished randomly and the class differentiation that stacked the deck against the low-budget set. It was an effective memorial to the “great upheaval” of the shipwreck. And an apt metaphor for society then and now.

I survived the evening. Yet another reminder it’s better to go first class.

Rhonda Lieberman