Last Friday at 5 p.m. I joined a small crowd at the intersection of Orchard Street and Rivington on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to see “The Sound of Morning,” a piece by the sculptor and performance artist Kevin Beasley, commissioned by the Performa Biennial. (Though Beasley’s performance is over, it can be viewed at performa2021.org, and the rest of the festival’s shows, which continue through the end of the month, will also stream live.) Simply setting a piece outdoors charges the surroundings with an air of intention and expectation, even before the piece itself actually happens. I studied the fire escapes and tailor shops and restaurants down Orchard Street, or the bystander carrying a kendo practice sword, the way I might have studied a painting.
But then 10 men and women strolled into view, one idly tossing a basketball. As they spread out and interacted with objects found or prepared — ripped a paper bag, dragged a can across the asphalt, popped open a ChapStick, dismantled a fence — small body mics picked up their sounds and Beasley, standing by in an ad hoc DJ booth, live-mixed and broadcast them. As a John Cage-like trick for making us notice the texture of the city, it felt like a bit too much — the amps didn’t seem necessary. But as a metaphor for the violence to which Black and brown bodies are subjected in public space, it was powerful. Nearly everything the performers did reverberated, simply because of the context in which they were acting; and when the spectators brandished their iPhones and cameras, to me they looked like weapons.
John Tsombikos and Enno Tianen
Through Oct. 30. 281 Church Street, Manhattan; zug-zwang.com.
Last year, John Tsombikos and Enno Tianen began mailing each other drawings, Tianen from his home in Seattle and Tsombikos in Manhattan, a long distance game of exquisite corpse in which each added something to what the other had sent. Eventually, they expanded the game into paintings, shipping exposed and unprotected panels, their frames cannily packed with books so they could be sent via the Postal Service’s media mail. The results, displayed in a former restaurant space with several works tucked under a range hood, are alternatingly poignant and hallucinatory, a collision of distended faces and abstracted forms, the streams of each artist’s consciousness flowing freely into the other.
Tsombikos and Tianen’s contributions in the graffiti community are well admired — Tsombikos for a yearslong campaign he carried out in Washington in memory of a childhood friend who died by suicide; Tianen for being one of the few people to tag a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge — and their imagery here refers to street life’s capacity for possibility and violence with a surrealist shade. A police camera mounted to a Harlem street sign becomes the eyes of a grinning demon; a gun emerges from the zipper of a figure’s pants; disembodied eyes float across the frame; men are pictured in handcuffs or incarcerated. The graffitist’s impulse toward dissent streams through the paint.
The paintings are covered with stamps and postage stickers (itself a graffiti tradition), marks added by the government workers who handled them, an affecting touch that expands the collaborative effect dramatically. They chime with the mail art made by Duchamp, Ray Johnson and On Kawara, who over the years sent hundreds of telegrams to friends that simply informed them he was still alive. The strategy requires a certain surrender of aesthetic control, but in offering a way to assert one’s humanity outside the standard channels of the market, it’s an attractive trade. Tsombikos and Tianen achieve something as close to art’s purpose as can be hoped: another way to let people know they’re still alive.
Candy Chang and James A. Reeves
Through Dec. 6, Green-Wood Cemetery, Historic Chapel, 500 25th Street, Brooklyn; green-wood.com.
Memorial art works are notoriously difficult to pull off. Yet Candy Chang and James A. Reeves, two New York artists who have created similar installations in the past, hit just the right tone with “After the End,” a participatory work in the Historic Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery, the final resting place of famous and infamous figures, from Boss Tweed and the original Brooks Brothers to the composer Leonard Bernstein and the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The format for “After the End” is very simple. Paper and pens are provided along with a prompt: “Describe your loss. What comforts you?” After writing down your thoughts, you roll up the sheet of paper and insert the scroll into an illuminated grid of circular openings. Then you can sit in the chapel’s apse and listen to a soothing ambient composition, piped through speakers. Texts taken from the anonymous submissions are projected on the ceiling. “I’ve lost 3 family members, 2 to Covid, in the last 2 years,” reads one. “Grief changed who I am,” another says. Comfort is also expressed: “The birds still sing”; “I can still find reasons to laugh.”
Solemn and spare, the work copies the stripped-down aesthetics of ’60s Minimalism, which have become the go-to aesthetics of monuments, from Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (which echoes Michael Heizer’s work from the ’60s). “After the End” doesn’t specifically address the Covid crisis either. Instead, it provides a place for anyone suffering loss or battered by contemporary life to mourn, meditate and perhaps heal a little.