Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Cityscape in the Round: TJ Wilcox: In the Air, at the Whitney Museum.

A View of TJ Wilcox's Cinematic Panorama at the Whitney.

I'm a lifelong New Yorker and an artist who often draws on the city for inspiration and subject matter.  So,  I've long been aware of how much Manhattan has changed over the decades, and yet how much it seems to stay the same; of how much history attaches to the place too, both personal and public---- phenomena that the TJ Wilcox's installation at the Whitney, "In the Air," mimics.  In recent years I've been painting more ambitious cityscapes than the little plein air ones I've long done, so I find myself grappling more and more with what I want them to convey:   Do I want to make a realist statement about the insignificance of the individual in a place as vast as New York?  A magic realist one about the often random aspect of life in a place as large and varied as this?  Perhaps a little of both, as contradictory as that may be.  So, it was with great curiosity that I visited the Wilcox show and made note of his take on the city.  And, Wilcox's panorama of Manhattan is nothing if not contradictory, showing both the exuberant creativity of New York artists and the destruction that has been visited upon the city, too.

I always enjoy viewing other artists' portrayals of New York precisely to see their take on it.  And I wasn't disappointed by this show.  The installation is quite large, it takes up most of the Museums's second floor and consists of a giant circular screen, upon which a kaleidoscopic panorama unfolds:  According to the installation wall text, the cinema-in-the-round format harks back to the late nineteenth century, when cinema was a new medium.  Wilcox's panorama is a 360-degree view of Manhattan, using four cameras, it was shot from the rooftop of Wilcox's Union Square studio on a single day in September 2012----from sunrise to sunset.   Using some sort of stop-motion animation technique, Wilcox was able to greatly speed up the fifteen hours between dawn and dusk to fit a half hour long format; that serves as a backdrop or framing device for six short narrative films that are shown sequentially.
A still from "Futura," one of six film vignettes that appear
within "In the Air." 

The narratives range from the distant past to more recent events.  Taken together, they form, as much as anything, a meditation on the interconnectedness of past and present, both imagined and real; and of the intersection of personal memory and the historical record.  There is no real logical progression from one vignette to another.  Yet there is just enough thematic similarity between some of the narrative films to make them seem to tie into one another:  The vignettes "Futura" and "John,"  are an example, each relates a large-scale catastrophe that left an indelible mark on the public.  The former, the crash of the Hindenburg; the latter, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  Obviously, there is no rational connection between the two events, the only tie-in, the theme of catastrophe and collective trauma. Similarities that are arbitrary, without any factual relation.  Yet, in the viewing of "In the Air," random similarities seem to take on the aura of significance.

 "Futura" uses old news footage showing the Hindenburg crash interspersed with Wilcox's filmed mock-up of an apparently actual, unrealized, plan to use the Empire State Building as a docking station for dirigibles.  I must say, I thought the mock-up was one of the panorama's more amusing touches.  In it, people are shown on a very flimsy looking gangway extending from a blimp to the top of the Empire State.  It added a note of levity to an otherwise tragic subject.

"John" uses the superintendent of Wilcox's building to relate the attacks on the Trade Center.  By using his superintendent's eye-witness account, instead of news footage, Wilcox establishes the interconnectedness of personal memory with that of the public account.  Of course, Wilcox didn't have to show us images for us to visualize what happened that day.  We saw the attacks televised, over and over.   But the super's matter-of-fact narrative makes the events more relatable, seem less mythic, more down-to-earth:  He describes going from incredulity, to horrified realization----not unlike the reaction I had to telecasts of the attack!
"Silver Cloud," one of six vignettes that unfolds during the
cinematic panorama:  "In the Air."

I was also amused by the vignette "Silver Cloud." It shows footage shot from Andy Warhol's 47th street "factory" rooftop in 1965, interspersed with newscasts of the papal visit of Paul VI.  In the film a helium filled silver phallus is being launched aloft while the pope's motorcade passes below.  It's a little hard to believe that the film's narrative arc is entirely authentic.  I'm guessing that the launch was shot separately, then added to news footage of the papal visit.  But the conceit of the pope receiving a phallic salute on his visit to the city is very funny.  Like "Silver Cloud,"most of the short narrative films are collages, mixing footage from several sources, such as old news reels and recreations or re-imaginings of events.  And, it isn't always clear what's what, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction.

"Manhattanhenge" is the last of the six vignettes.  It shows the biannual phenomena of the same name.  As natives such as myself probably know, Manhattanhenge is a phenomena that occurs every spring and summer:  On the equinox the setting sun aligns with the basic street grid in Manhattan, so that the sinking disc is visible on the major cross streets, at least those with an unobstructed view such as 57th and 42nd streets.  As you may already know, Manhattanhenge is a neologism derived from Stonehenge.  So, the closing vignette creates an allusive association between Manhattan and a bi-gone and mysterious people.  I suppose the suggestion is that one day the sun will set permanently on Manhattan as it did on the civilization that created Stonehenge.

I regret not having seen "In the Air" before.  It is an enormously original vision of New York:  past and present; factual and not.  Yet "In the Air" seems so authoritative and all-encompassing that it seems like much more; almost like a definitive portrait of the city.

TJ Wilcox:  In the Air ends February 9.  Whitney Museum, 945 Madison Avenue (at 75th St.), NYC.