Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York
We were stuck behind two slabs of plexiglass welded together underneath a staircase, the makeshift press box at To the Stars on the Wings of Eel at the Gowanus Ballroom. To my left was Dan Teran, who was photographing the show for Artsicle; to his left was another photographer who long ago took his shirt off and was covered in dust, dirt, and sweat. Behind us, the artist Dustin Yellin was similarly shirtless; he and a few friends were smoking cigarettes and nervously waiting, as we were.
“OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD,” one of them spewed in a joke voice behind us. “WHEN’S THE PIANO GONNA DROP? WHEN’S THE PIANO GONNA DROP?” We all laughed: everyone was a little jumpy and this joke broke the tension.
About ten feet in front of us lay a decadent pyramid of 385 champagne glasses. About 60 feet above that dangled a baby grand piano from a single metal hook. They were elements of a sculpture projection called The Piano is the Champange that was organized by Brooklyn artists Rainger Pinney and Jonah Emerson-Bell. All of the safety ropes that had been keeping the piano up had been removed, but the instrument, like us, was stuck. The artists who had dreamed up this fantastical, Kickstarter-funded project were unsure of what to do, and we were terrified of being seriously injured if we moved out of our safe house. Twenty minutes before, all of the people who had been on the bottom floor of the warehouse space had been had been herded outside while artists drilled slabs of plywood inset with polycarbonate on to the entrance. Their puzzle and distorted faces peer in, trying to discern what had happened. We had all come to see the kind of action and destruction that is normally relegated to the cartoon world of Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote, and to feel the elation that such an unusual event would elicit. Now, though, we were left wondering if the entire performance could have been an exercise in relational aesthetics: was the joke on us? Amid the confusion, it was hard to tell. Dan spotted Chris Hackett, the well-known Red Hook artist and welder, who was presumably consulting with the artists on what to do. Someone behind me shouted to the people on the second floor to throw a cinder block at the piano, which, thankfully, did not happen.
We were at To the Stars on the Wings of an Eel, a group show at the Gowanus Ballroom curated by Serban Ionescu, Ethan Spigland, George Sferra, and Josh Young. Billed as a chance to explore the urban unconscious of the neighborhood of Gowanus, which it proudly (and correctly) proclaims is experiencing rejuvenation, the show featured the artwork of almost fifty artists (the full list can be found here). The opening reception offered a carnival-like atmosphere: when I entered, a band was playing loud, soulful music that reverberated throughout the space despite the hum of the crowd; a man wearing only a stethoscope took to the same stage an hour later, growling and snarling to the audience about his childhood and experiences with books. Attendees could climb into a large tree house erected on the second floor, marvel at large scale installations, such as the torpedo made of what appeared to be white plywood or a recreation of a ship’s deck, scattered around the labyrinth-like space. The carnival feeling was emphasized by the lack of air conditioning on a hot summer night, which lead to large clusters around various industrial-strength fans and men and women in varying states of undress or sweat-soaked clothing all cooling down with beer provided by the bar.
A few pieces from this jam-packed show caught my eye in particular. For shock value, there was a fish tank with a sign on it that said “All Specimens Caught in the Gowanus Canal” that drew large crowds taking photos, mostly, I assumed, because these fish did not have three heads or twelve fins or other serious mutations. Echoing the tank was a small Tom Otterness piece, instantly recognizable from the artist’s distinctive style, of a fish with legs clutching a bag of money. A bronze sculpture of a girl’s profile in silhouette was placed perfectly within view of Bruce High Quality Foundation's series of profiles of the same man in different colors, dangling a cigarette from his lips. Ray Smith's colorful, totem-like humanoid wood sculptures with holes where their faces and guts should be were wonderfully grotesque. A large drawing of a middle-aged man sitting with an outstretched hand was reminiscent of Lucian Freud’s work. The geometric style of a TJ Volonis' large copper sculpture brought to mind the industrial past of Gowanus that the show was trying to celebrate and re-imagine.
Back in the press box, my legs were beginning to cramp while I tried to ignore the discussion around me of various threats to our safety. After about twenty minutes of waiting, people stifled by anticipation and heat began to trickle down from the second floor of the Ballroom, ignorant of the piano’s precarious position and their own imminent danger. The show’s organizers frantically channeled them as far away from the piano as possible, and began taking the safety barriers down from the doors at warehouse’s entrance. Those outside began streaming in as the barriers were set up to create a perimeter around the champagne glasses. More beers were bought; music could be heard and the warehouse filled with chatter. The show went on.
To the Stars on the Wings of an Eel is on view at the Gowanus Ballroom, 55 9th St. Brooklyn, from June 29th-July 7th. For those interested, the piano will be dropping this Saturday.