Jacket and shoes saturated with warm rain, I duck into the overhang on the southeast corner of Essex and Delancey. I’d finally reached my destination, public art non-profit Creative Time’s newest project, Living As Form, a retrospective exhibition of the socially engaged art from the last 20 years. Senselessly trying to brush off the excess water that clung to every inch of my body, I look up to find myself in a stark white entrance reminiscent of so many gallery shows. Stepping beyond the entrance and into the cavernous room that the Old Essex Street Market once called home, however, the space turns quickly from void to vibrant. This sensational shift is surely an intentional on the part of Creative Time to remind any visitor that what they have to offer wasn’t your standard white cube display of contemporary art. The space feels raw, but raw with a purpose. Peeling signs from market days past loom over the packed exhibition space and video installations fill existing rooms that may have once been meat lockers and refrigerators, making no attempt to hide, but rather creating a reminder of the storied past of both the building and of New York’s Lower East Side in which it is situated.
Having last seen the market barren and full of nothing but inches of dust during my internship with Creative Time this past summer, “busy” doesn’t even begin to describe the space in its current state, but then again, how could a retrospective of “socially engaged art” be anything but chaotic. Low cinderblock walls create beanbag filled communal meeting areas, a perfect environment for discussion, and exhibition spaces customized for commissioned works. Countless industrial shelving units scatter the floor, creating a living archive which displays information about artist’s projects from the last 20 years. These two parts bring the past and present together as one while simultaneously, given the crowds the exhibition has been drawing the past two weeks, projecting socially engaged art of coming years further into the public eye.
For Chief Curator, Nato Thompson, the term “socially engaged art” is so loosely defined that he has chosen to throw such un-authored events as flash mobs into the mix with the work of artists like Francis Alÿs, whose solo show at MoMA closed just two months ago, calling the visitor to question and formulate their own definition for how far the word “art” can stretch. Creative Time demonstrates that a single space, no matter its size, can’t and shouldn’t contain such an exhibition, which is meant to engage the community around it. The show’s artist commissions spread blocks away from the market throughout the LES, including works such as art collective Bik van der Pol’s “Elements of Composition“ (below) in which a two parking lot expanse of massive text reading “As Above, So Below”. The piece, which can only be viewed in its entirety from the tall apartment buildings that surround the empty lot, calls to question the value not only of land in such a densely packed city, but also of the airspace in which structures can be built.
Between the archive and the various commissions, there is much to see at Living As Form, but by merely “seeing” the exhibition, a visitor will and truly miss the mark. Living As Form can be seen as less of a retrospective of socially engaged art and more of a socially engaged artwork itself. By bringing all of these works together in one exhibition, Creative Time asks the visitor to become aware of how many socially engaged art practices exist worldwide and to do something, do anything, to help further their causes. Living As Form provides a thrilling visual experience, but one that is meant to excite a visitor to move beyond the standard identity of “the viewer” and into the realm of “the participant”.
The show closes Sunday October 23rd.
For show details visit – http://www.creativetime.org/programs/archive/2011/livingasform/
For more information on Creative Time and opportunities to get involved visit – http://www.creativetime.org/
Photos courtesy of Creative Time. Photo credit: Sam Horine.