Moving Right Along
The Contemporary Museum engages the transitory with an exhibit at Penn Station
Published: December 28, 2011
Moving Right Along
At Penn Station through Feb. 16, 2012
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Sitting on a bench at Penn Station this holiday season, you may notice that some of the passersby are a bit stranger than the usual array of grumpy commuters and harried holiday travelers. There’s a fish with human legs scampering between two of the station’s marble pillars, and the perfect steampunk—half dandy, half locomotive—chugging by. That’s not even mentioning the armadillo, or the pink-and-green women, or the legions of little white ghost-things.
Actually, all of those characters—and plenty more—are animated images moving across a still image of the station’s marble hall in a five-minute loop projected onto the window of an empty storefront inside the station. It’s hard to tell if it’s a reflection or a portal to a parallel dimension.
The doubling effect is mesmerizing—Sierra Jones, a former Baltimore School for the Arts student back from college for the school’s Alumni Night, sits there for at least half an hour watching it as her phone charges—but it is also a bit vertiginous, like travel itself.
Laurence Arcadias, Lynn Tomlinson, Rick Delaney, Steve Meneely, and their students in MICA’s animation department created the work as part of the Contemporary Museum and the Downtown Partnership’s collaborative exhibition Moving Right Along.
Sue Spaid, the Contemporary’s director, got the idea for a show about transit when the Contemporary found itself with no gallery, waiting to move into its new space on North Charles Street after vacating the Mutual Home Life building last fall.
The museum had already gotten an Operation Storefront grant from the Downtown Partnership, where Sarah Edelsburg was also looking for ways to reinvigorate public spaces that are hurried through and overlooked. (Disclosure: This writer read as part of the “Poets in Preston” series she organized this fall.) So the organizations teamed up and put out a call for artists, eventually determining that the Contemporary would organize the part of the exhibition at Penn Station, while the Downtown Partnership would organize a show of outdoor sculpture at Central Plaza in January.
“We don’t have the contacts with the art world,” Edelsburg says. “The Contemporary was able to help us reach out and find artists to work with.”
Spaid says that is exactly the kind of facilitation in which the Contemporary should be involved: “We’d like to be perceived as a mediator by other institutions in the community, to help set them up with artists.”
Together, the Contemporary, the Downtown Partnership, and Amtrak were looking for works that were playful and interactive and addressed the passage of time. Of the three works included in the show, MICA’s animations are the most immediately engaging.
Josh Van Horne’s brilliantly titled “If You Say Something, See Something” also deals directly with the nature of travel, but it requires more of the spectator.
“We usually pass through train stations in silence, and I wanted to get people to use their vocal chords,” Van Horne, a local muralist, says.
”If You Say Something” is a spiraling pattern of blue and white cubes, rigged so that lights flash in response to sounds in the station. Most of the time, it is rather dormant, issuing the occasional blip of light when a woman walks by on her way to the bathroom or the PA system thanks everyone for riding Amtrak.
But when a disheveled man trying to bum train fare back to Washington starts singing directly into it, the lights swirl and shimmy along the spiral of cubes. In response, the man pushes his voice into more unlikely rhythms and registers to see what else the lights will do. The interaction is beautiful: It turns out Van Horne’s work—like your seatmate on the train perhaps—is only boring if you interact with it in a boring way.
Boring may, however, be the best way to describe Artemis Herber’s “Walls of Love.” The work is composed of a series of tall cylindrical “wraps” of bright red cardboard set at varying distances from the outside window of the storefront, visible as you walk down the sidewalk toward the station’s front doors.
The cylinders rearrange themselves in relation to one another, depending on the viewer’s perspective, and in motion it creates something of the effect of passing through a winter forest on a train. But, while somewhat engaging to the passing glance, “Walls of Love” offers little to sustained or repeated viewing. It is a strange piece, because the only way to interact with it meaningfully is to walk by it without paying much attention.
This failure may be curatorial rather than artistic. Herber had originally proposed another piece to the museum, but when Amtrak limited the display to the storefront, Herber was forced to fall back on “Walls of Love,” which was created and shown in 2007. Beside “Travelers” and “If You Say Something, See Something,” which were designed for Penn Station, Herber’s work is left feeling like an afterthought.
Still, as a passerby says, “It’s better than an empty window.”
That fleeting bit of wisdom sums up the philosophy of the show. The Contemporary has used what could have just been downtime to repurpose this empty commercial space for aesthetic reasons, subtly infiltrating the perceptions of travelers and perhaps drawing them in—or, even better, pushing them outward, to notice the strangeness of travel and of time.
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