October 12, 2020 – January 3, 2021
New York City
On a day of mounting anxiety and anticipation in early November, on the northeast corner of 6th Avenue and West 55th Street, I had a fortuitous encounter with a mirrored phone booth that displayed beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This street artifact hit me as a readymade of sorts, the levers of an experiment of precariousness fitted for our time and age. As I walked all sides of the booth, I realized what exactly was before me: a version of Sermão da Montanha: Fiat Lux [The Sermon of the Mount: Fiat Lux] (1973–79), a performance piece by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles that happened in a mirrored room stacked with thousands of matchboxes over a floor covered in black sandpaper, with actors playing the role of guards. The artwork was first conceived during the infamous Years of Lead, in the darkest period of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship and it underscores a risk of imminent explosion. Somewhere between a sculpture and a performance, it exists on the verge of transformation.
The new iteration is part of TITAN, an outdoor exhibition from kurimanzutto gallery in phone booths all located within a short stroll along 6th Avenue between West 51st and West 56th Streets, in Midtown Manhattan. The site, one of the main arteries of the city, was selected for its abundance of advertising and proximity to cultural and financial powerhouses—Radio City Music Hall, UBS, CIB, MoMA, and Peggy Guggenheim’s original gallery Art of This Century. Devised by artist Damián Ortega and kurimanzutto director Bree Zucker, the show brings together a distinguished selection of contemporary artists. Besides Meireles, it includes Anne Collier, Glenn Ligon, Hal Fisher, Hans Haacke, Jimmie Durham, Minerva Cuevas, Patti Smith, Renée Green, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Yvonne Rainer, and Zoe Leonard. Each artist has their own phone kiosk, which displays their work instead of an advertisement during the last season of the booths. Next year they will be removed by the city in order to make room for Wi-Fi portals.
Like Meireles’s Sermon on the Mount, the most interesting works in this show exist on the edge of change, somewhat embodying the idea of performance while remaining still. Impersonating an oracular god, the groundbreaking choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer galvanizes her fury against the Trump era in Excerpts from Apollo’s Diary, Written During His Last Visit to Earth from Mount Olympus (2020), a humorous, explosive, and overt political commentary. At some point, the god, whose role is averting evil and helping the mere mortals here on Earth, succumbs: “I have to admit that things are worse down here than I ever imagined […] I’ve decided to give up my attempts at improving the condition of Earthlings. Unlike Sisyphus, I’ve not been condemned to hang out down here and nurse my frustrations for all of eternity.” Rainer’s Apollo is a mischievous, Dionysian one—a reminder of the competing forces that overlap the debris of the past and the redeeming promise of future.
Similarly politically charged, Minerva Cuevas’s work parodies the vocabulary of internet memes to convey an ironic call to arms. The weapon of choice in the modern trenches of online discourse, memes spread quickly and create an anticipation for never-ending change. Cuevas’s message is one of defiance and dissent, urging the viewer to rebel against division, deprivation and absence. Yet, it evokes the veiled potential for upheaval and explosion underlying the everyday. Grumpy Cat proclaims: “Another end of the world is possible,” while a contemplative lemur seriously declares: “Most powerful renewable resource? Denial.”
The key to these pieces is their possibility of activation, their uncertainty and impending transformation, like the phone booths themselves. Once a connector, a crossroads of human relations, these cabins were celebrated in pop culture as everything from travel portals to places for anonymous calls and sites of refuge from terrifying bird attacks—think about Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (1963), Doctor Who’s time travel machine, and Clark Kent’s changing station in Superman (1978), to name a few. As mobile devices became ubiquitous, phone cabins turned into obsolete, anachronic symbols of a bygone era. Yet they are everywhere: some still even work, while others serve as repositories for leftover food and empty canvases for graffiti. These days, they may also act like a vessel for the novel coronavirus, another reason to avoid them. In a sense, the booths are now non-places, the neologism coined by French anthropologist Marc Augé to refer to spaces of impermanence, which don’t hold enough significance to be regarded as places and, therefore, don’t share social references that empower people’s identities. Still, as this exhibition suggests, these dilapidated non-places, once fixtures of New York City streets like the yellow cabs, guide us through a remarkable route, underscoring what lies around the corner for us.