A Claes Oldenburg & Le Corbusier takeover on MoMA’s Sixth Floor… and don’t forget Olafur Eliason, James Turrell and the Expo 1 Action at PS1
New York City, July, 2013. It’s hot, it’s sunny, and it’s for the most part unbearable. What better time then to plan a magnificent Museum escapade than a hot, sweaty, scorching, beaming with blazing sun and overbearing subway tunnels sort of day.
I began at MoMA Proper, and went strait to the Special Exhibitions Halls on the Sixth Floor where Claes Oldenburg and Le Corbusier are having separate retrospectives. I’ll begin with Claes Oldenburg, a fun-filled, fantastical, very 1960s sculptor of plushy “commodities”. From vitrines filled with delectable treats, to over sized suit jackets and store-window displays, he uses commercial materials ranging from organic, loopy paper construction to solid yet bulbous painted plaster and metal creations to exaggerate the everyday into a realm of absurdity. As if one was walking into an Antonin Artaud DIY theatrical production, MoMA’s presentation of Oldernburg’s “Store” along with other sculptures of this time very much uphold the ulterior mode of the 1960-70s Zeitgeist: not all art was so overtly militant, propagandist and critical of the volatile decade, but instead, Oldenburg’s plushy commodities more interestingly beat down the evil of Capitalism and its subsequent power structure through appropriation, beating the evil superstructure at its own game by transforming mass production, the golden child of modern economics, into absurd parodies consumed by individualism, autonomy and a Walter Benjamin-esque aura.
From Oldenburg’s Phantasmagoria, one then enters the barracks of Le Corbusier’s attempted Total World Domination, a plethora or drafts, models, writings, paintings, drawings, sketches, etc. that spanned the architect/painter/innovator ‘s lifetime. Exhilarating? Of course. Overwhelming? Yes. We are bombarded with a world of a prolific artist par excellence, a man consumed by a dualism between spiritualism and innovation: an Enlightenment ethos of Technological progress paired with a moral concern for nature. But at the same, and a seemingly contradictory pairing at that, he fought for a progress that upheld nature, and even ameliorated the sublime’s lost frontier that fell victim to the modern industrial city. To be one and the same, a Modern Industrialist and an Ecologist of sorts, to preserve and build highly complex buildings to emphasize and enhance the natural topography of its context, Le Corbusier stands as a great visualization of Theodore Adorno‘s conception of Negative Dialectics; what is progress without regression towards its origins? Le Corbusier annihilates the opposition between Nature and City in order to make a third term apparent, i.e., his style, a kind of spiritual architecture that worked to build space from and within the spaces of nature. For nature isn’t to be used or forgotten, but rather to be borrowed and transformed, a sort of Utopian contemporary niche between the city and the world surrounding it.
And now, just three quick stops off the E train (I know, so close), and I arrive in Long Island City, Queens, a remarkable vast difference from the hustle, bustle and anxiety of the Times Square arena MoMA resides. PS1 is a wonderful journey in itself, where viewers navigate beige hallways with wood floors ala studio buildings one finds in the vast warehouses of Bushwick. It’s quiet here, calming, and us New Yorkers should travel in droves to this oasis.
Now, technically, Eliason and Turrell are not participants of the Expo 1: New York exhibition, but, they do very much integrate into the shows ecological concerns in response to the industrial demands of the 21st century. What better way to find sanctuary from 90 degree heat, honestly, than to dip into Olafur Eliason’s “Your Waste of Time“, a great contemporary reflection on entropy and the laws of thermodynamics very attune to the scientific ethos of Robert Smithson. If you have read Smithson’s writings, you know what I’m talking about, an obsession of entropy, a way of interpreting the world as an Adorno constellation rather than one network of two-way tunnels. Crash course: entropy is the law to which even systems of disorder evolve to thermodynamic equilibrium, which is what we see in Eliason’s site-specific room. The icebergs are kept in tact by cooling the gallery space below freezing. The power to freeze the icebergs is generated by the sun through solar panels installed on the museum’s roof. Here’s the entropy: the Sun’s rays and global warming is the actual cause of icebergs melting around the world; however, in this installation, the Sun is actually the means for the perpetual existence of the icebergs. The same exact cause of one’s death is actually the means of existence for another’s life. Through technological innovation, equilibrium is possible.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of activist art protesting our debased ecological frontier post Late Capitalist economic expansion, one reaches an apex of sublime solidarity: James Turell’s “Meeting”, a site-specific permanent installation that captures the aesthetic beauty of the sky. Acting as a voyeur, lounging on reclining benches in a pyramid-temple shaped room, one stares idyllically into a square oculus towards the sky. I went on a particularly scenic day, where fluffy cumulus clouds slowly drifted through the cyan blue sky. It was calming, stoic even, to stare at something so obvious to our everyday lives, yet rarely contemplated. With Turrell’s installation, his objectification of “sky” reifies its existence into a fetished object of aesthetic beauty, something similar to a painting of clouds yet not as surreal. It is uncanny, we are subsumed by a feeling we have seen this image before, yet in front of our eyes now framed into a majestic square with each point facing a cardinal direction, we do not recognize it as that ominous, overly familiar presence in our lives, but as something autonomous and enchanting because it is disconnected from its context as “atmosphere” and through its disjointed perspective, is instead transformed into a piece of art.
Featured in Expo 1 is a piece by Mark Dion: a haunting bricolage of death featuring taxedermied animals bathed in tar, hanging from a tree limb planted inside a bucket. This resonates with the ecological ethos of Expo 1 by presenting not just rodents, the detritus of city life, but also household animals including a dog and cat, all suspended from ropes like martyrs, as if they sacrificed their lives for the sins of humanity.
What was my ultimate understanding of MoMA’s immense survey of art? From the 1960s to the present day, from the rise of Industrialism and economic expansion to the global domination of Capitalism and its subsequent disavowal of nature, Art is and should always be concerned with its present context. How it should present itself, how it should objectify itself through contextual concerns, is a different story, as one will see when experiencing the diversity of artworks throughout MoMA’s halls.
- MoMA’s Le Corbusier Exhibit is Must-See, Says Critic Alexandra Lange (archdaily.com)
- Le Corbusier vs. Manhattan: MoMA Exhibit Shows Why The Original Starchitect Never Quite Conquered New York (forbes.com)
- ‘Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes’ at the Museum of Modern Art (galleristny.com)