From the Archives: Work in Progress

Main entrance to P.S. 1 with Marina Abramovic's steel-and-quartz sculpture Chair for Spirit, 1997, at center. Photo © Michael Moran.


The Return of the Red-Brick Alternative, published in our January 1998 issue, included a side bar in which A.i.A. contributing editor Eleanor Heartney gave a more intimate, first person account of her interactions with the artists who were participating in exhibitions at the newly renovated P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. In the months leading up to P.S. l’s re-opening in October 1997, Heartney made frequent visits to Long Island City to follow the progress of the installation. Her article-within-an-article, titled “Work in Progress,” shares some impressions she gathered while watching several of the more elaborate works take shape.–Eds. 


Because of prior commitments, Paris-based Chinese artist Chen Zhen is one of the first to complete his installation. Titled Prayer Wheel, it is surrounded by a crushed-paper temple which suggests nothing so much as a giant igloo. The exterior is eerily lit by a pair of upturned garbage cans covered with red light bulbs. Inside, the temple’s smooth, translucent walls enclose a giant upright cylindrical form sheathed in all manner of calculating devices—Chinese abacuses, mechanical adding machines, small electronic calculators. Large spokes protrude horizontally from the cylinder, allowing visitors to rotate it. When they do, the quiet inside the “igloo” is shattered by the loud ring and slam of a cash register.

The artist explains to me that his intention is to meld symbols of commerce and meditation in order to make a metaphor for the way that economic development has become China’s new religion. Traditional objects of ritual—the Tibetan prayer wheel, the red lanterns, the Buddhist temple—are here constructed out of everyday materials in order to pull them into the contemporary world. The clash of cultures is humorous and thought-provoking, a clear illustration of what Chen refers to as “the eternal misunderstanding between East and West.”

Yet, I reflect, perhaps the misunderstanding is not so total as some Western admirers of Asia like to maintain. The Chinese, after all, have long been recognized for their business acumen. Catching my thought, Chen notes with a twinkle, “Do you realize that Marina Abramovic’s chair is located in the courtyard directly above us? She is expressing pure spirituality. Here in the basement we have spirituality in its capitalist version.”

I meet Sylvie Blocher early on in my treks to Queens. A French video artist, she is concerned that she may not be able to realize her project. She explains that her modus operandi is to pose disturbing or provocative questions during videotaped interviews with individuals who are often selected for arbitrary connections they have with one another. Out of hours of tape, she may preserve only a few telling minutes, where subjects let their masks slip and reveal secret thoughts or vulnerabilities.

For P.S. 1, Blocher has decided to explore the American obsession with sports. She wants to ask members of an American sports team questions about art and beauty. Unfortunately, she was not prepared for the protective cocoon that surrounds athletes in the U.S. Having sent formal letters and inquiries to various teams prior to her departure from France, she has just discovered that these have been completely ignored. In response to her persistent phone calls, she has rather miraculously received a nibble of interest from the manager of the Buffalo Bills football team, but has been informed that time is too short as they are currently in training.

When I see her several weeks later, she is still struggling to break through the iron public-relations curtain. “I’m learning a lot about American culture and its divisions,” she says with a touch of resignation. Among the things she has learned is that being an artist holds no special privileges in the United States. She has been called naive, told “you are no Andy Warhol.” One publicist has admitted the real reason for the resistance: “What you are doing is quite dangerous—you are interfering with their images, and their images are one of their most valuable assets.”

At the press opening, she tells me she has been forced to postpone her athlete project. However, she is optimistic that she will be able to interview the Buffalo Bills in the near future and has a commitment from P.S. 1 to show the video when it is completed.

Meanwhile, she will show a work she completed in Honolulu last year in which she asked volunteers intimate questions about sex. We sit in her comfortable womblike room on a carpet of fabric scraps and watch the video. Subjects look straight at the camera and make unsettling confessions—a young woman, asked what she would change about herself, goes into a startlingly graphic description of her dense body hair. A young man, asked to describe the clitoris, begins confidently with a science-class description and then abruptly falters, confessing sheepishly, “Well, I don’t have one.”

Blocher notes a cultural difference: French subjects, faced with a video camera, will stand stiffly but answer the question, while Americans are totally at ease around the camera, but freeze when questioned about sex.

In one of my tours through the building, I come upon Matt Mullican and his assistants surveying the old boiler room where he will sink a set of metal grates into the dirt floor. The patterns on the grates will evoke an aspect of the complex metaphysical system Mullican has been elaborating for many years via drawings, banners, sculptures and electronic media. Heiss has confided to me that she wants Mullican to go maximal with this space—to include drawings and other works along with the sunken grates. Mullican is obviously thinking the other way. He will play his simple forms off the sculptural presence of the massive old boiler.

In excavating the dirt floor, he has unearthed a set of curving drain pipes. Struck by their metaphorical and physical similarity to his own graphic symbols, he wants to make them the conceptual center of the piece. “The pipes will be the capital, the rest will be suburbs,” he remarks.

The problem is that exposing the drain pipes may create a liability issue for P.S. 1 since visitors could trip over them and injure themselves. One solution is to cover the pipes with a grate, although this too could present dangers—someone’s shoe heel could catch in the grate openings. The other idea is to surround the excavated pipes with a low wall. Unfortunately, both solutions undermine the radical simplicity of the whole installation.

I run into Mullican again at the press opening. He is carrying a small metal gate designed to fit over the drain pipe opening. However, he plans to use it only if insurance necessitates. For now, the hole will remain open, allowing it to play off the sunken grates surrounding it. “I went through all these permutations and finally came full circle back to my original idea,” he says with satisfaction.

One constant during my trips to P.S. 1 is the presence of Sarah Sze, who is included in the “Some Young New Yorkers” exhibition. Sze has carved out two openings in the walls and filled them with intricate miniature environments, elements of which spill out onto the floor. The wall openings are on two floors (second and third), which serves Sze’s intention to suggest that the entire building is pulsing with hidden organic life. Her materials are utilitarian. A garden hose connects the wall space to an aquarium in which fragments of photographs can be seen floating. An electric fan ripples delicate little paper constructions, while desk lamps double as grow lights, illuminating small plants which sprout in a dustpan. Chewing gum wrappers, candy dots and light-bulb cartons form an oddly appealing landscape in the wall. Sze tells me that she wants her miniature installation “to look like something someone would create if they were locked for a long time alone in a bathroom.”

The first time I make my way to Nari Ward’s installation in the attic, the artist is jubilant. Just that morning he has discovered a stash of old school records tossed behind the wall decades ago. These will become important materials for his installation, which is titled, with apologies to George Washington Carver, Now to maintain and preserve the virgin fertility of our souls. Ward’s plan has been to build a dense labyrinth out of discarded building materials, abandoned bottles, obsolete equipment and appliances from P.S. 1 and its environs. This new find allows him to tie his installation even more intimately to the building’s pre-art history. He will wrap the penmanship flash cards and religious instruction excuse forms in black plastic garbage bags, or hang them at eye level from wires. “These are real echoes of the past,” he says excitedly.

The next time I come through, the vast peaked room has been invaded by a dense web of twisted garbage bags filled with Ward’s discovered treasures. One must step through, around or under the looping plastic tendrils to reach a relatively open area in the center of the room. This, Ward informs me, is the “meditation area.” It is dominated by a refrigerator he found in the basement and has chosen to suspend from the ceiling. Incense smoke pours from the appliance to enhance the meditative aura. “I want to transform everyday experience by using everyday things,” Ward says, matter-of-factly. However, he has noted with disapproval how quickly I have been able to find a route through the looping bags. “I’m going to change that right now,” he says.

Less than a week before the opening I make another pilgrimage upstairs. “I thought I was done, but I just discovered a whole new cache today.” Ward announces. This haul includes cursive writing practice cards, collages by students and more excuse forms. He will build a vitrine to hold them under the refrigerator, which is now also covered with his finds. He tells me how, when a community group came through the building recently, one of the visitors recognized the names on several of the excuse forms dated 1945.

Each trip to Ward’s installation is followed by a visit to the other installation going up in the attic, by Robert Wogan. This is Wogan’s first crack at a mainstream art space, and he plans to make the most of it. His previous work has largely taken place in abandoned buildings and inaccessible sites. As in those installations, he hopes here to create a psychologically charged space which will unsettle the viewer’s perceptions.

Currently, his site is the open attic, filled to the eaves with various bits of wood and discarded metal cafeteria equipment. Working with his technical collaborator, Craig Baumhofer, he plans to wall off the chaotic debris and build a narrow tunnel which will lead, after various twists and turns, into a large open space. The pyramidal walls of the room will be painted seamless white. Once visitors reach the open space, a steeply inclined, carpeted ramp will lead to the peaked ceiling where Wogan plans to install a video, which will provide the only light in the room.

The steep ramp is intentionally designed to make it difficult for visitors to ascend to the top. “Confronted with the obstacle, probably just a small percentage will take up the challenge,” Wogan says. He demonstrates what is in store for these select few by bounding up the ramp to the video monitor and then racing back down. The descent looks even more challenging than the climb up since the pull of gravity draws one rapidly and inexorably earthward. As Wogan describes his project, metaphors tumble out: “I’m looking for a fun-house effect. . . . I was thinking about how mountains are created with plate shifts, and how they make you want to go to the top. . . . I’m going for the feeling of euphoria you get when you almost crash your car.” In the end, he sums up his ambition thus: “What I want to do is take your ocular sense away and leave you to your other physical senses.”

As the deadline looms, Wogan’s ambitious environment slowly takes shape. Not until the day of the opening is the background clutter completely sealed off. I experience the desired claustrophobia as the dark tunnel narrows to a height of about 2½ feet before opening into the dimly lit room. Mobs of people have joined me in braving the tunnel and we stand watching the video, an apparently endless loop showing interconnected corridors in an institutional building. This may be Wogan’s way of telling us that it’s the voyage (through the tunnel, up the ramp) and not the destination that counts. In some ways, I reflect, this is an apt metaphor for P.S. 1 itself, an institution that has always seemed to value the process of art-making over the finished work, an institution that is itself a vast, constantly changing work-in-progress.