New York

Tom Burr

American Fine Arts

Tom Burr would like us to consider how the beginnings of urban renewal in Times Square have produced a corresponding ideological realignment. His recent installation 42nd Street Structures, 1995, suggests that there is a rather complex yet often overlooked historical/formal connection between the sex industry and the architectural structures designed to house it. Burr plays texts—loaded with detailed descriptions of various edifices (including their condensed histories)—off of variously scaled, quasi-architectural models of existing buildings and public spaces. All the information is there, broken down into manageable, digestible units. Here’s one of Burr’s own descriptions. “Outside, the buildings are covered with facades of neon and various mirrored and reflective surfaces. Inside the storefronts, basements, back rooms, and upper levels . . . a network of windowless spaces unfolds.” Clearly, the problem is that the urban realities are far more complex, troubling, and engaging then Burr’s critical extrapolations of them.

With a methodology inspired by cultural anthropology and archaeology, with a bit of sociology thrown in for good measure, Burr sets about analyzing the prevailing conditions of one of the more mutable, “delirious” parts of the metropolis. Apparently in an effort to create a clinical environment suitable for rigorous investigation, Burr reduced the rich architectural/social complexity of this neighborhood into an all-too-neat package of “perfect”—and dry—models. In Burr’s miniaturized, generic urban mise-en-scène, formal codes derived from the histories of Modernist architecture and Minimalist sculpture are deployed rhetorically in an effort to reveal all the dirty little secrets and galling contradictions of a society that represses itself, that masks its problems beneath perfect structures.

Regrettably, in what has become something of a pattern, Burr analyzes things to the point that they disappear altogether. (The same thing occurred in his projects for “Sonsbeek ’93” and “Project Firminy,” both held in Europe in the summer of ’93, where I first encountered his work. Although those projects felt at once conceptually rigorous and competently researched, their visual presence was so reductive as to be disabling.) Ultimately, 42nd Street Structures is infused with nothing more than an anemic didacticism. Though each text in Burr’s installation describes the formal/architectural conditions of X-rated movie houses, the “porno disco,” or blue movies, the descriptions are as enervated as the models they complement.

Either Burr cannot perceive the flux, or he has elected to omit it from his representational approach; in any case, all we are left with is a skeletal conception of urban reality, from which the meat has been picked clean. Maybe this position is strategic; perhaps Burr is using a sanitized visual language to invoke the very same sanitization of those tourist-rich mean streets by the folks at Disney (in collaboration with the municipality of New York) as they endeavor to make it safe for Mickey and his frolicsome friends. But in the end I couldn’t help but suspect that Burr wants us to share in his nostalgia—thinly disguised as progressive cultural politics—for the days when porn ruled Times Square. 42nd Street Structures suggests that there is something both politically redemptive and socially transgressive in pornographic representations of sexuality—gay or straight. But Burr never really comes clean, leaving us unable to grasp the ideological, emotional, libidinal, and political interests that he has stowed away beneath the geometric certainty of his architectural environments. A cagey tactic, indeed, but nearly profitless in its ambiguity.

Joshua Decter