New York

David Hammons

Ace Gallery

By all accounts, the opening for David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue, 2002, was magical. Rather than put objects on display or represent the depth of his artistic practice—which ranges from film and video to performance to works on paper—Hammons chose to present virtually nothing. Not only did he leave the more than twenty-thousand-square-foot space completely empty, he turned out all the lights, creating a deeply immersive environment with the flick of a switch. And rather than provide visitors with something to see, Hammons (who is known for his economy of means) gave them something to do: navigate cavernous darkness with a tiny “blue light,” a pressure-activated LED flashlight no bigger than a quarter. At the opening, accompanied by live traditional Japanese music, 1,500 individual blue beams whirled in velvety black space—dancing, drawing, illuminating their way into an efflorescence of light and interactivity, a beautiful improvisational social sculpture. Contributing to the ambience of this entertainment playscape was the fact that everyone was invisible to everyone else; participants’ inhibitions relaxed into altered, enhanced states of social interactivity. With an elegant symmetry of invisible art and invisible participants, the piece unfolded communally, encouraging people to contribute rather than to consume passively.

The experience of Concerto in Black and Blue was guaranteed to be different from day to day, since the work consisted of the fluid accumulation of points and pools of light. There was no music after the opening, but noise filtered in from the street; audience members found themselves more or less on their own. As they explored unknown architectural space, shadowy characters emerged and disappeared down mysterious corridors that faded into the perpetual black of this underworld. At any moment, pervasive calm could be transformed by some unexpected rupture. In my own ad hoc poll of people who attended the exhibition after the opening, fear factors surfaced. Some experienced disorientation—getting lost, not being able to find their way out. Others immediately felt threatened by the blackout, by the unknown, by the presence of strangers who couldn’t be seen. I adopted a defensive mode, checking out each gallery I entered for other bodies as a means of controlling the space. Still, I imagined what it would be like if the entire city were dark, pretending that the blackout extended in all directions; another of those on-the-verge-of-apocalypse moments flashed instantaneously into mental view. After all, the space was not some mythic Hades; it was in New York City—mere steps from the scruffy streets on the fringes of SoHo, and mere blocks from Ground Zero.

In what may be becoming a new, lyrical “blue period” for the artist, Concerto in Black and Blue shares qualities of ephemerality and emptiness with his recent installation Real Time, 2000, at the Ujadowski Castle in Warsaw. Hammons covered many windows with gel filters, filling the galleries with blue light. And in his recent artist’s book, Blues and the Abstract Truth, 1998, he continued to allude to cultural politics as the color blue spilled into the “blues.” Indeed, all the “black and blue” of his Concerto installation refers to African American culture, which has been the seedbed of his practice for more than a quarter of a century. While rooted deeply in formal languages of conceptual practice, Hammons’s work is saturated with discursive potential, functioning on many levels at once and disallowing the very notion of neutrality in art.

Jan Avgikos