The Shed is Falling Down
Hudson Yards is enormous, the office and apartment towers loom over a too small plaza, the shopping mall (yes, there is a suburban shopping mall in Manhattan), is full of the kind of empty space that is the ultimate signifier of prestige in a city as dense as this. The size alone is gaudy, and the gigantic blandness, the cheap obviousness of it all, is Trumpian to the core; gaudy, phony, and with an underlying edge of contempt for anyone who can't afford the rent. So of course Steve Ross, the developer behind Hudson Yards, is a fundraiser for Trump. He wants us to understand that no, it's not that he wants to promote authoritarianism, racism, and the caging of children—so unpleasant that—it's just that he wants more tax cuts. As long as he gets to keep more money than he'll ever be able to spend, he'll put up with the authoritarianism and the racism. They’re the price other people have to pay so he can do business.
Trump exists to provide comforts to the already comfortable, a group of people indeed so comfortable and so insulated from the moral and ethical ramifications of their decisions that the slightest public hint that they may not be the greatest products of human civilization gives them grievance—the Sacklers were helping people in pain! Hudson Yards insulates them from the life of New York City, and The Shed, the token arts space there, exists to reinforce the notion that the people who live in Hudson Yards have good taste and are creative.
Two things about The Shed are unsurprising: the banality of its programming and its shoddy construction—making money is the most banal pursuit, and so The Shed reflects both Hudson Yards' purpose and values as well as the cost-cutting and trimming that's all part of being a real estate developer. There is one surprise though: the person responsible for the programming is Alex Poots, The Shed’s artistic director and CEO, and that his co-curator for the venues showcase opening installation, Reich Richter Pärt, is the reliably intelligent curator and critic, Hans Ulrich Obrist.
The Shed is a long way from the Armory, where Poots oversaw things like Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s haunting and beautiful In the Light of Air, or Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s frightening installation, THE MURDER OF CROWS. Nowadays, the Armory honors Charlemagne Palestine, as it did when it hosted him and his collection of stuffed animals for a performance of Strumming Music last fall, while The Shed honors Björk, clearly an underexposed artist.
Reich Richter Pärt was commissioned by The Shed. Inside the program booklet, there is a welcoming note from Poots that begins, “Opening a civically engaged cultural institution to commission artists in all disciplines so they can take creative risks and push artistic boundaries requires an audience that is inspired and compelled by this mission.” Taken at face value and as something more than institutional boilerplate, and combined with it’s ultra-wealthy setting, then topped with the bland safety of this work, produces the gut response that Poots has been captured by wealth, and as is the case with wealth in America, is unable to see beyond the cocktail parties and fundraisers to what is a pending crisis in the streets—disenfranchised voters, political corruption that endangers democracy, political media that stands on the sidelines and reports on who’s winning the day, uniformed and armed agents of the state given the implicit and explicit sanction to shoot unarmed Black people and put babies in cages.
There were beautiful things in Reich Richter Pärt, but they were expensive, glossy things. There was a serene choral work by Arvo Pärt, Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima, sung the afternoon I attended by members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. And there was a world premiere piece commissioned from Steve Reich, which was untitled at the time of the performance by Ensemble Signal, that was often exciting and full of fascinating hints of Schumann and the chromaticism that is increasingly a feature of Reich’s music.
The connection between these two performances was the work of Gerhard Richter—Pärt and Richter had already collaborated, while Reich and Richter had found mutual inspiration in each other’s work.
Richter has been the wealthy collector’s avant-gardist of choice ever since Sonic Youth put a print of one of his paintings on the cover of Daydream Nation. Never punk or hip, Richter’s work has always displayed the process of its creation as a way to signal that he is smart and works hard. Surrounding the singers, Richter's stained glass like prints were full of ostentatious colors, meaningless technique, and the reproductions and hanging looked cheap and lazy. The modest and deep beauty of Pärt’s music seemed like St. Francis lost in the quad at Liberty University.
Pärt accompanied Richter. In the more successful second room, Richter accompanied Reich—filmmaker Corinna Balz animated the painter’s work into a series of flowing, neon-bright lines and shapes. The constant motion was pleasing and was enough to keep up with the energetic performance. But I didn’t want to see that movie again, I wanted to hear Reich again.
None of this was bad, but little of it—moments of Reich’s score—was interesting or even surprising. And that was by design, whether Poots would admit it or not. There is nothing risky in putting out the work of a famous painter and two famous composers, each of whom has gained a public following outside the typical worlds of modern art and contemporary classical music. No matter the quality, tonal music and abstract patterns push no boundaries, they are the boundaries, thickly padded so no one will get bumps or bruises.
In the end, Reich Richter Pärt was self-congratulatory; Poots and Obrist and their patrons (Ross is on the board of The Shed) and their audience all congratulating each other and how, by coming together at the venue, they affirm each other’s good taste, intelligence, and last but not least, socio-economic standing. That is the last thing the world needs right now, we are suffering from a surplus of the upper classes congratulating each other. We need places like The Shed to collapse and make room for affordable housing, schools, and libraries. Considering its shoddy build quality, that looks to happen.