(featured image: Deborah Kass, “After Louise Bourgeois”, detail. Photo credit: Audrey Irving.)
Enormous. Crazy.These are the words that come to mind while I’m walking back through a strange industrial wasteland to the 36th Street R train stop. I was left a little dazed after going to the marathon opening of “Come Together: Surviving Sandy” this Sunday in Sunset Park’s Industry City. Put on by the nonprofit Dedalus Foundation and the Brooklyn Rail, the show includes work by over 200 artists, curated by the Brooklyn Rail’s Phong Bui. Bui is a flamboyant character in the art scene, known for his trademark illustrated portraits of interview subjects and his distinctive dress sense (often including neck scarves). “Over 100,000 square feet of art!” the advertisements boast, bringing to mind the sick allure and monumentality of a Costco or Super Target. It was, indeed, similarly exhausting and hard to take in within a single trip. But the work included in the show was, put simply, fantastic.
Highlights for me included Dustin Yellin’s mind-boggling, multi-layered sculpture “After the Flood,” a magical reimagining of the hurricane aftermath painted and collaged between panes of glass. I was captivated, too, by many of the video installations, including Shoja Azari’s “The King of Black,” a dreamy quasi-Bollywood short film, and the meditatively surreal “Flooded McDonalds” by Superflex. The content of the works was so diverse and spread out amongst four different floors of the compound, yet remained anchored together by Bui’s very wise organization and clustering: vignettes of similar pieces were broken up by video installation rooms, jam-packed gallery-wall areas, and well-placed sculptural works.
I want to be clear in my critique: I really liked the show, and stand by it, ultimately. But the buoyant media hype of the mega-exhibition was pulled down somewhat by last Friday’s article on Art F City by founder and editor Paddy Johnson, pointing out the implications of gentrification, celebrity-making, and corporatization that the show could be read to be participating in and producing. As important, poignant, and even charitable the show and its theme may seem, its organization does contribute to an outpricing of local residents (many of them artists, ironically) and to the ongoing gentrification of Brooklyn. This controversy was a noticeable cloud on the opening reception Sunday, made unavoidably visible by the fliers taped inside Industry City’s stairwells that advertised open studios of artist residents.
I’m not the first person to say it, by far, but art always lives in a strange space between gentrifier and victim of gentrification. In some ways, art galleries and studios are seen as a harbinger of bougie infiltration, foreshadowing new and horrific developments to come like artisanal coffee shops. (I speak in jest, but such institutions usually do signify a pushing-out of those occupying the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.) But historically, the “starving artist” has indeed tended to exist in the poorer, more remote areas, surely slaving away at the easel with a growling stomach and crumbling ceiling, and correspondingly, most art galleries operate very neatly within the definition of “small business.” The same cannot be said for the museum-like, large-scale public galleries like those that now proliferate much of Manhattan, which this show is not akin to – it is essentially a pop-up exhibit, in some ways like the Armory or other such art fairs. Likewise, there is certainly a strange confrontation the viewer encounters in the very “market-ness” of the art world being brought to the fore in the politics and programming of this exhibit.
A group show, on a micro-level, is a very grassroots idea, but seems to be bent out of that shape in this new, mega-exhibit format. But I can ultimately stand by the show for its actual inclusion of such a large number of artists, both big and small names, and the sheer quality of the art being shown. So, who is to blame for this “necessary” corporatization? The realtors and property-owners, jacking up prices for market standards beyond reason? An uncultured and tasteless middle class that isn’t purchasing enough art, forcing conglomerate corporate power to be required for such exhibitions? Perhaps an overly simple but fair explanation would be the harsh economy in general, worsening all of these pressures and predicaments. Disasters, like Hurricane Sandy or the 2008 recession (and both of their lasting effects), force us to reevaluate our own priorities, values and capital in a very real way. We are faced to deal with our stuff, our baggage, and scrounge together what resources we have left to start again. The solution, always, involves creativity and a coming together. For that truth alone, which is definitely embodied in the artworks included, the show is a success.
“Come Together: Surviving Sandy” is on view until December 15th at Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For more information, visit http://cometogethersandy.com/.