September 13, 2018

LEUNG | We Can Still Go, Even If You Like Me

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A red carpet stretches across the room. Wooden sticks, maybe five feet long, are placed in groups of six on top of it. As we walk the expanse of the room, we contemplate the meaning of these rather enlarged sticks, watching as they alternate in fullness and parts. Most people would roll their eyes at this concept of art, others, like us, are in awe that we are a part of it.

Dia:Beacon is a museum of art that houses works from the 1960s to present. I hesitate to call it a museum (even though technically, it very much is), for the vastness of the space allows for a more bodily experience than what is normally achieved by conventional strolls through gallery rooms. Once a Nabisco box-printing factory, Dia:Beacon still holds onto the industrial old-school nostalgia of a place that has long since been abandoned. The expansiveness of the space calls for large-scale installations and sculptures, prompting the acknowledgement of one’s smallness.

The intrigue I held for Dia:Beacon before, recommended by art lovers and skeptics alike, was only fueled by an article I found in The New Yorker, written by Steven Phillips-Horst. The title is “Dia:Beacon Rebrands as Ideal Date Spot for Couples Who’ve Been Dating for Two Years and Have Nothing Left to Say.” Phillips-Horst wrote that the space is a “direct appeal to couples who, when dining out, suffer a palpable tension as the server approaches and there is clearly no conversation to interrupt.”

Phillips-Horst explains some situations in which unintentional interactions trigger new communication at Dia:Beacon. A thirty-two-year-old woman makes eye contact with her boyfriend of three years in the surface of Robert Smithson’s Leaning Mirror before averting her gaze. A girl motions to alert her boyfriend who is wearing headphones to watch a Bruce Nauman video installation that she is leaving the room. She receives a half-smile in return.

This article, honestly, filled me with a desire to laugh at the modernity of love, but also a curiosity to explore this potential confrontation with palpable tension.

I should’ve known right from the start that I was doing it wrong. I went with someone who I definitely did not have nothing left to say to. We had lots to say. We say a lot. But maybe by going with someone who was the antithesis of who Phillips-Horst targeted, it could give me another perspective in which to view the space — and a mission to see if we could still thrive in this environment.

The organization’s communications director explained that looking at this artwork would provide people to comment on the way in which things were installed or question meaning, creating the “perfect respite from a relationship that’s been slowly drained of any and all intellectual chemistry.” But if intellectual stimulation was the case, why isn’t any museum or gallery space capable of  bringing two boredom-driven beings who still crave the comfort of each other’s presence back together? Why was Dia:Beacon specifically targeted as the spot for lackluster relationships?

From the moment I saw the grouped sticks in a room that seemed to extend on endlessly, I knew the space was one that would heighten every moment: every noise or touch would be exaggerated to the fullest extent. And that precise interaction between space, artwork and viewer in this Nabisco box-printing factory situated on the banks of the Hudson River, full of people dressed in all black with clear Warby Parker glasses, brought confrontation to the forefront.

I think Phillips-Horst wanted to highlight a sort of bridging of intangible space in an environment where the concept of space is summoned. This stillness forces people to connect, making them cross a bridge they may or may not have been aware of in the first place, or bringing them to a different place altogether. What happens when you are faced with shards of glass piled up on the floor? When you enter Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse and realize you are forced to fit through the confines of two walls to make it to the center? When you navigate room after room of Irwin’s Homage to the Square3and find yourself making sure you didn’t lose the other person? When you both are staring deep down into the abyss of three different holes and don’t know what you’re looking for anymore?

This progression in art is not merely a looking act anymore. It can be argued that any work of art seeks to engage the viewer. But when faced with a reflective piece of monumental scale, or are made to navigate an entire basement with neon lights guiding your way across the floor, it forces you, whether you want to or not, to engage with not just the works themselves, but whoever you are with. You do not hesitate to determine the historical context of the work, to see how it fits in the seemingly linear route of art history, like many other works in the MoMA or Met do. Your bodily experience is immediate and present.

We need more spaces like this to test ourselves and our relationships with others, to see how visual forms announce our own body and its gentle movement towards others.

Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gleung@cornellsun.com. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.