New York

Dora Budor, Benedick, or Else (detail), 2018, scenographic elements, script, architectural modifications, light. Installation view.

Dora Budor, Benedick, or Else (detail), 2018, scenographic elements, script, architectural modifications, light. Installation view.

Dora Budor

80WSE Gallery, NYU Steinhardt School

New York University opened 80WSE in 1974, initially as a showcase for student work and later as a venue for practicing artists. Currently under the direction of curator Nicola Lees, the gallery’s programming is heady, multifaceted and experimental, oftentimes incorporating the expertise of NYU’s diverse faculty. 80WSE is also—sorry to say—a challenging place to mount an exhibition. Its physical dimensions are awkwardly scaled, and its floor plan faintly resembles a coiled python digesting a family of antelope.

Most artists commissioned by 80WSE learn to cope with this space; Dora Budor wanted to understand it. In the course of her research she uncovered a story as quintessential to Manhattan as Washington Square itself. Designed by McKim, Mead & Bigelow in 1879 (just before the firm replaced William Bigelow with Stanford White), 80WSE was intended as a residence for single men, a shifting and shifty demographic that struggled to secure leases elsewhere. These tenants turned the building into a fixture of Greenwich Village’s raucous bohemia, earning it the sobriquet Benedick, after the bachelor protagonist of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. In 1925, NYU bought the property and converted its interior into dormitories, offices, and classrooms. Since then, Benedick’s exterior skin has remained intact, but his guts have been cut up and rearranged countless times to accommodate the university’s ever-changing needs.

A prolific collaborator, Budor has worked with neuroscientists, engineers, and other professionals to animate the material histories and corporeal associations of ready-made objects, ranging from leftover Hollywood film props to, in this case, an entire building in downtown Manhattan. At 80WSE, Budor enlisted the NYU-trained scenographer Andromache Chalfant to cast the building as both the stage and the protagonist of a play-cum-exhibition titled Benedick, or Else. A printed program—part map, part theatrical synopsis—labeled the gallery’s rooms and corridors as acts and intermissions. “We arrive at the rare moment,” read the prologue, “where the building has been caught off guard, as it adjusts to a new position.”

A casual visitor could have been forgiven for assuming the gallery was between exhibitions. The rooms were mostly empty, and two utility closets lay open, revealing ladders, power tools, and a security-camera monitor. With time, however, a surfeit of cues gave away the game: This state of transition was a costume, an installation in dishabille. A thick layer of dust ringed the hardwood floor of Act I. Blue lighting gels bathed Act II in a sickly glow. In Intermission II, a fluorescent bulb blinked on and off, performing the studied dereliction of a horror film. All these delicate touches and calculated absences recalled the nimble interventions of artist Michael Asher, but Budor and Chalfant’s scenography achieved something in excess of institutional critique: an ambience of masquerade and impermanence that mimicked NYU’s own seemingly compulsive urge to expand and renovate. Act III was all drywall and plaster. Act IV was mapped on the program’s floor plan, but in actuality was inaccessible, as if the contractors, in their haste, had forgotten to add a door. These were the trappings of what Rem Koolhaas has called “junkspace,” an interminable churn of development driven by insatiable desire. “Whereas detailing once suggested the coming together, possibly forever, of disparate materials,” wrote Koolhaas, “it is now a transient coupling, waiting to be undone, unscrewed, a temporary embrace with a high probability of separation.”

Tragedies end in death; comedies in marriage. In Much Ado, for instance, Benedick weds Beatrice. By contrast, Budor’s play concluded with a half-finished storage closet. Benedick remains a bachelor, or rather, a bachelor machine, one of the throbbing pistons in Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915–23. Perhaps Budor’s show should be regarded as a “tragicomedy,” which is how Samuel Beckett classified his Waiting for Godot (1953). However, instead of Vladimir and Estragon together onstage, expecting a redemption that will never arrive, the curtain here closed on Benedick alone, standing upright with his pants around his ankles, furiously masturbating—grimacing, straining, but, despite his best efforts, never coming. Hold on to that mental image for the next time you walk by all the construction around Washington Square.