New York


Creative Time at Governors Island

A mile of water is all that separates Governors Island from downtown New York, but the metropolis’s jackhammers and careening cabs couldn’t feel any more distant. For all its past—as a US Army and then Coast Guard base before it started to be developed into a public park in 2003—in 2009 Governors Island feels like a site without an identity. You get the sense that when the nineteen artworks in “PLOT09: This World & Nearer Ones,” Creative Time’s inaugural “public art quadrennial,” are removed, either ghostly silence will envelop the island or it will become a bland commemoration of military history. Marking the site’s transformation, several buildings will be demolished shortly after the show closes.

In New York, public art is normally shown in a park, plaza, or bloodlessly hanging on a corporate wall, each possibility hewing to conventions of how such art meets its public. On Governors Island, curator Mark Beasley encouraged an integration of art with site; several works mingled with military remnants or inhabited regal old buildings with dank basements and groaning floorboards. Sometimes this made sense, sometimes less so. Anthony McCall’s trademark cones of light projecting from the high ceilings of the handsome Saint Cornelius Chapel amid a haze of mist felt predictably overdramatic. Edgar Arceneaux chose the opposite tack: to underwhelm. His sound installation used low-frequency rumbles to approximate the indeterminate murmurs that “ghost hunter” audio equipment seeks. Emanating from within a well-lit domestic interior, Arceneaux’s white noise was easily subsumed by the shuffles of itinerant viewers searching for art, and the piece became an experiment in awkward and inevitable social interaction.

In a way, Arceneaux played with what many of the artists approached gravely: the island’s quality as unofficial resting place for dead histories, dead mythologies, dead people. Teresa Margolles imported a bullet-riddled wall of concrete blocks from her hometown Culiacán, Mexico—the remnant of a narco-gang execution. Klaus Weber hung an imposing wind chime on a stout tree branch, tuned to produce a droning tritone—an interval once associated with Satan, who is said to have himself instructed its use in Giuseppe Tartini’s early-eighteenth-century “Devil’s Trill Sonata.” A. A. Bronson and Peter Hobbs performed a ritualistic séance titled Invocation of the Queer Spirits, 2009, using Governors Island’s military setting to “queer” the infamous prohibition of openly gay members in the US armed forces.

In a spirit similar to the Arceneaux piece, the Bruce High Quality Foundation upended the island’s history-infused atmosphere with Isle of the Dead, 2009, a spoof of zombie spoof films, screened inside a cavernous disused cinema. A zombified New York art world (whose members played themselves) restlessly searches for the next hot locale, ludicrously ending up in the same Governors Island cinema burdened by nostalgia: They watch 1960s performance-art films and sing Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69” in unison. This kind of self-reflexive site specificity also showed up in Adam Chodzko’s video Echo, 2009, which was projected in the same building in which the “military brats” who grew up on the island congregated to play a game. As recounted in the video by former island residents, the object was to swap as much value as possible for next to nothing (a set of encyclopedias, say, for a joke): to be, so to speak, the biggest loser. This references the original terms of the island’s sale to Dutch settlers—allegedly for two ax heads, some beads, and a few nails—but it also publicizes a notion of “value” that doesn’t correspond to what it means in the market. Like this beautifully absurd game, the pieces in “PLOT09” that most persuasively activated Governors Island’s abstractly mystical sensibility reveled in this sense of value, and its superstructure of “context,” as fundamentally unfixed.

Nick Stillman