at the queens museum
“For the future is like heaven–everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now.”
James Baldwin, 1958
Dennis Adams has created a site-specific installation Ederle for the Queens Museum of Art. Adams is widely known for his public-art installations or “interventions” in both the U.S. and Europe. Central to the new installation is a backlit, 20-foot-wide, seamless, very frontal photograph of the seating in the Gertrude Ederle Amphitheater. The amphitheater was built for the 1939 World’s Fair—”The World of Tomorrow”—in Flushing Meadow Park. When this exhibition opened in April, the amphitheater was still standing, though slated for demolition. Yesterday, June 24, it was all but gone. A pile of bent girders and rubble. You can buy a souvenir brick for $5 if you are so inclined.
Below a large-scale photograph of the amphitheater and recessed several feet you can see roughly the bottom third of rear-projected imagery (surely shot on film but now projected in video format) of various home movies taken by Fair-goers to both the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. Legs on skates, bodies in the water (presumably at the Aquacade), rides, shots of pavilions, etc. I’m guessing that the majority were shot in the ‘60s but there is evidence of the earlier fair as well. For a moment I was reminded of the horror experienced seeing a long-dead parent flicker by on that now distinctive 16mm Kodacolor film. Here, legions file past lively yet somehow ill lit.
Inside this theatrical space, which was built for the installation and in which there is no seating—save in this giant image which spans the entire width of the room—the photograph is dramatically present. Much has been made in the catalogue of “eliminating the idea of a privileged point of view” due to the viewer’s inability to read the entirety of the filmic images. Yet I felt oddly omniscient standing there. This perhaps out of sheer perversity, for the nagging inevitability of mortality seemed to hover at my side.
Adams was presumably attracted to the fairground because of its peculiar history as public space. It’s difficult to describe how winning the installation is; it needs to be seen. Too bad in a way that the exhibition closes before the Open opens. A little art and a little tennis–not a bad combination.
For some reason I was hard pressed to think about the architecture or public spaces per se, even though I know that these are serious concerns that inform Adams’ work. I just kept thinking about Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Pepsi-Cola Pavilion. In 1964 Pope John XXIII agreed to bring the Pieta to New York to be exhibited in the Vatican Pavilion at the fair. The sculpture had been in St. Peter’s since 1499 and had never been moved. The Pieta was lit by a theatrical designer and viewers were carried past it on a giant “people mover” e.g. a moving sidewalk. I remember vividly standing before this austere, pristine object surrounded by a bluish glow, and having to march sideways and to the left to prevent myself from being swept speedily past it after having waited so long to enter the pavilion. This image and the song that accompanied the Disney-designed Pepsi-Cola Pavilion’s “It’s A Small World” exhibition are in fact the only things I remember about the 1964 World’s Fair. That awful song entered those young brain cells like a bad advertising jingle, never to be dislodged. Robert Moses was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1964 as having said, “The stars of my show are Michelangelo and Walt Disney.” Obviously he knew what he was talking about.
In fact, those two impulses, the religious and the Utopian, would seem to be the point—though I’m not sure that Adams would agree. For those with faith—a moment comes when all men and women are stripped of their worldly possessions and stand before God as equals. For those with less or none, the injustices of the present seem less bearable–this being the only game in town.
Did you ever wonder why we never got to have that magnificent “car of the future?” Surely, everyone that saw one wanted one. I know I did. And I kept waiting. Ten years went by, then 20, then 30. I’d think—it must have been too expensive to produce, maybe it wasn’t a functional design, or maybe it was just too wonderful to let anyone have it.
But maybe not being allowed to have something that was imagined is really just an inverse metaphor for the difficulties inherent in representing that Utopian ideal. If for example we lived in a world in which—and this is just by way of example—men and women really had social and economic parity everywhere in the world, everything, and I mean everything would be so radically transformed that the world of day-to-day life would be completely unrecognisable. But it is not just the world around us that we would have difficulty recognizing. We would be constituted and interpellated so differently we would be strangers to ourselves. It is not a failure of the imagination not to be able to picture this future but a failure of the imagination to suppose that one could.
So all that great stuff of the future that we never got to have gets documented in books about the World’s Fair and we can gaze at it and wonder why it is we never managed to have that better world. And in our “real” world, thanks to technology, the dead skate past us in all their youth and vigor. And it’s not mawkish or sentimental. On the contrary, the installation seems to be asking us to act in the “real” world while we have the chance. And how do we know that there is anymore a “real” to act in? Well you can, take it on faith or you can side with Salman Rushdie when he said, in response to who knows what: ”We prove the world real by dying in it.”
Dennis Adams at the Queens Museum
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Queens, N.Y. 11368
April 18 – July 7, 1996