Last night I went to the Park Avenue Armory for Douglas Gordon and Helene Grimaud’s tears become…streams become…, a collaborative installation and performance investigating the theme of water in the Armory’s cavernous space. The thin pool of water consumed the majority of the 55,000 square feet of floor space, but opened up the volume of the hall tremendously. Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s career-long penchant for making time palpable transformed the space in his installation, and Grimaud’s performance teetered between virtuosity and delicacy for a surprisingly intimate concert in the large, lonely hall.
Before she sat at the bench, however, the water performed. For nearly twenty minutes the panels slowly flooded with water, turning the black floor into a reflective mirror. While some reviewers called this a boring buildup to a disappointment, I found this opening to be extremely compelling (as did the NY Times’ music review). Surface tension itself is mesmerizing when we’re prompted to slow down and observe how water conspires to slowly erase irregular patches of dry ground. Like Gordon did in two of his most well-known works, 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which slowed down Hitchcock’s film to a full day, making motion imperceptible to the naked eye and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006, with Phillippe Parrenno), a 90-minute film that follows the famous footballer for an entire game the artist makes us reconfigure or relationship to the moment, duration, and narrative. The movement of water here, which the artists likens to tears, becomes just as dramatic as Church’s Niagara–if you let it.
Once the pool was complete, the lights dimmed further and the low-hung lamps retracted up into the ceiling like those at the Metropolitan Opera. In an almost pitch black hall, Grimaud walked slowly, nearly imperceptibly through the water to the piano. Unfortunately my seat, at the far end of the pool on the north side of the hall, prohibited me from seeing the movements of the performer beyond her feet and an occasional flourish of the arm. However, the subtle changes in light throughout the recital performed the music with her. At times the second piano, placed near the center of the pond, appeared to sink into the water or rotate on a pedestal–all subtle plays of light. The ceiling’s reflection in the water completely altered the space, an effect heightened by the shifts in lighting and perception. The building’s structural components, the east and west walls of the hall, and even the audience members themselves rose and fell from attention with the swelling and receding of Grimaud’s interpretation of the water-themed pieces by Liszt, Ravel, Debussy, and others. Light, water, and sound became just as architectural as the 120-year old Gothic Revival structure itself through duration.
It is, I think, this reorientation of our attention to time that was so off-putting to reviewers from Art Net and Blouin Art Info, and a handful of my fellow audience members. Silence was as much a part of the performance and experience of time as music was. Ideally, the silence becomes spatial, however, with periodic whispers or rustles from “bored” spectators, this effect is broken. Whether its the impatient ladies-who-lunch The Observer complained about at the premiere, or the fidgety couple next to me, my awareness of the sonic presence of our neighbors was far more irritating than their visual reflection in the reflecting pond. On that note, I would have appreciated a request from the Armory for people not to leave in the middle of the performance, as high heels walking along the raised wood platform that surrounded the floor’s mirror were incredibly disruptive. At times I was intensely reminded of John Cage’s 4’33”, though I really wish I wasn’t.
Despite the spectacular scale and presentation of the work, completely ideal conditions for experiencing a piece like this with all its subtleties and silences would be impossible. Perhaps these discrepancies are like the variations with each new interpretation of a master pianist. Only they are the variations of the performance of a space over time. Reflecting upon this further, I’m reminded of Gordon’s earlier film Bootleg (Empire), 1995, where the artist recorded a gallery installation of Warhol’s 8-hour test of boredom Empire (1964), calling attention to the fluctuations in attentiveness that come with contemporary art spectatorship.
Nevertheless, it would have been nice if my neighbors could have just stopped whispering and sat still for an hour.