BARBARA GLADSTONE GALLERY
January 23 – February 21, 2009
Saturday afternoon your faithful correspondent briefly absconded from his desk, slithering down the block to Barbara Gladstone to witness the final performance of Allora & Calzadilla’s exhibition Stop, Repair, Prepare. The artists have cut a hole in the center of a Bechstein piano, from which a rotation of seven pianists performed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” every hour on the hour during gallery hours for the duration of the exhibition. The performer is given license to improvise, and pushes the instrument (on large casters) throughout the gallery. Blending sculpture and performance, the result is incredibly fascinating. With the keys arranged backwards from their normal progression and forced to play the entire composition upside-down, the virtuosity of the performer is an endless source of wonder.
At least 14 strings are missing from the piano to accommodate the performer; as a result the musical score has been re-arranged, pushing notes to the higher and lower registers of the keyboard. Towards the end of the final performance, pianist Sun Jun began to play the keys from which strings had been removed. Despite lacking the intended tune, the rhythm of the music was maintained—creating a surprising experimental interlude. The anthropomorphism of the piano creates a surreal object that suggests Jamie Isenstein’s sculptural explorations of performance via David Cronenberg’s Crash—the apotheosis of man and machine intermingled. It is a fantastical, strange sight to see a piano shepherding a crowd of over one hundred people around the otherwise bare gallery, bottlenecking between rooms.
Without the aid of the press release the viewer might not know that “Ode to Joy” has played a role in historical events as far ranging as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Third Reich, and the European Union— raising questions about the many lives of canonical artworks, and their appropriation into systems and ideologies beyond the intents of their authors. While the specific history of this composition might not be self-evident, the work successfully engages the same conceptual interests through the literal embodiment of the performer in the instrument. Breaking down the boundaries between performer and instrument, composition and performance, all of these normally distinct categorizations are intertwined. As such the music is malleable to the identity and will of its handlers, incapable of transcending its context under such conditions. Thus politics, history and ideology come to bear on the performance or presentation of a work of art.