The ice had all melted. I had come to the group show at MOMA P.S.1 in Long Island City, “Expo1,” to see the contribution of Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist responsible for the amazing waterfalls he installed five years ago around the island of Manhattan.
This time he’d put a little bit of Arctic ice in a climate-controlled room at the former public school/art showplace. It was the closest to the Arctic I thought I’d get in the near future, so I made sure to hit the show on its final weekend.
I would have gone in the GIRLS entrance at P.S.1, the former First Ward Primary School of Queens, except it was only for staff.
I’ve always liked those gender-differentiated doors in schools. My own middle school had them.They bring to mind a lively picture of the dangers of mixed-sex post-recess lines — hair-pulling and other scrapping.
The show we’d come to P.S.1 to see featured environmentally-themed works by contemporary artists in a range of disciplines, from video to wall-sized paintings. “Dark optimism” is how the museum describes the show’s approach to various ecosystems.
We went stoked with barbeque from a joint in the neighborhood, called John Brown Smokehouse (named after the abolitionist), that loaded our plates with piles of Kansas-City-style brisket ends and pinkest pastrami.
We didn’t find our names on the freebie list next to the chalkboard menu.
Afterwards we picked up a wheelchair at P.S. 1’s coatcheck. I always wondered what it’s like to cruise through an art museum in a chair. One thing I found out: you see the lower end of the frame a lot.
That’s from a series by Agnes Denes, completed in 1982, for which she planted a field of grain in what was then undeveloped landfill and is now hugely built out Battery Park City. Her photographs show unsettling views of the World Trade Towers half hidden by amber waves in the foreground.
I sat at the perfect height to examine the trash receptacles that lined a small square room, by Klara Liden, untitled. It lends a certain poignancy to all of these works to realize that you are making your way from classroom to classroom as you go, where some of those girls from the GIRLS entrance and boys from the BOYS entrance shot spitballs and kicked each other under the desks.
I like your graffiti, said a young lady in a sundress, eyeing my cast. They appreciate fine art at P.S. 1. As it happens, I got it right across the street at 5Pointz, the graffiti mecca that is destined to be shut down shortly for luxury housing. Ed Koch used to say that the purpose of an artist is to move into a neighborhood and increase the rents by so much that artists can’t afford to live there any more. Or something like that.
The fancy museum cafe served us coffee and exquisite poppyseed-blackberry cake with lemon curd. For nineteen dollars. Now that’s some high-toned art.
But no ice, any place. The piece called “Your waste of time” was no more. The room, with its shards of ice from Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, was not intended for a deep freeze, a guard told me. “It was a real mess,” he said. The ceiling started to fall. In an exhibit about the environment, global warming writ small. This happened about a month ago.
There were other great things at the museum though.
Steve McQueen’s disturbing, hypnotic film from the vantage point of a helecopter buzzing the Statue of Liberty.
A tiny hole in the floor that revealed a video showing the artist Pipilotti Rist drowning in lava while shouting “I am a worm and you are a flower!”
A tree reminiscient of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit from which a dog, cat, rat, frog and a few other strays were strung up, all dipped in sticky black paint. This nightmare by Mark Dion, titled “Killers Killed,” reminded me of the Uncle Remus stories. My artist-friend Gary, who came along to the museum, told me he knew the artist’s wife when she owned a dress store in Soho. Artists lead ordinary lives, no matter how bizarre their creative efforts.
There was the grotto created by Meg Webster originally in 1998 and reinstalled for this exhibit. It has some vicious looking koi swimming around. The artist herself comes in for a dip once in a while.
What I liked perhaps the most was a permanent piece, the gold-leaf covered boiler system in the basement, the work of Saul Melman in 2010. This is a vintage coal boiler out of Freddy Kruger, in a dank stone and brick cellar that reminded me of the basement I grew up with, penetrated by boulders. I could only see gold-gleaming bowels from the upper doorway as I could not descend the stairs, and I wish I saw the artist in action.
But the current show was the place to go if you wanted to see a projection of a parrot against Betty Boop wallpaper or a disembodied porcelain hand holding a broken porcelain egg. If you were interested, as I was, in frightening urban scenes of large old trees against barbed wire fences.
But not if you wanted ice. For that you’d have to go to the service exit.