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Bred at the Shed: Three Boundary-Busting Inaugural Commissions (with video)

Audiences and critics were scratching their heads at some of the eclectic opening presentations and commissions at The Shed—New York City’s recently opened incubator for unconventional new works in the visual and performing arts (sometimes commingled). As I suggested at the end of my previous post, the offbeat offerings intrigued me, even though (in two instances) I didn’t quite know what to make of them.

Below is a part of the deliberately dimly lit installation by Trisha Donnelly (to May 30), which I strained to see and struggled to interpret. I edited this photo to make it bright enough so that you can more clearly see some components of this murky installation:

Part of an untitled installation of dead tree trunks by Trisha Donnelly, accompanied by a recording of the great Leontyne Price singing the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For those of us accustomed to labels or handouts that provide some insight into artists’ intentions, The Shed’s presentations can seem frustratingly enigmatic. Mystified by Donnelly’s dead trees, I concocted a theory about their anomalous juxtaposition with a famous aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

I tried it out on The Shed’s press office:

Can you say anything about why the dead trees are juxtaposed with Carmen’s “Habanera”? What’s the connection—a seduction that ends with the killing of the seductress?

To which The Shed’s spokesperson replied:

The artist chose not to provide a text for the exhibition. 

Also insufficiently explicated was my pick of The Shed’s newborn litter—Reich Richter Pärt (to June 2), a two-part performance that irked some critics for falling back on the well-worn creative imaginations of three octogenarians. Since I’ve reached an age when ageism could only boomerang, I felt no ambivalence about succumbing to the mesmerizing allure of this international marriage of American composer Steve Reich, German painter Gerhard Richter and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

Although the three-hander is grandly billed on the printed program as “A World Premiere Shed Commission,” the Richter-Pärt part had its start at the Manchester International Festival, overseen there (with different visuals by Richter) by Alex Poots, now The Shed’s artistic director, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, its senior program advisor.

At The Shed, Richter’s wallpaper-banners and tapestries (each symmetrically mirror-imaged, both vertically and horizontally) served as the vibrant backdrop for the haunting a cappella performance by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street of Pärt’s Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima—a 2014 work that he had dedicated to Richter.

What The Shed’s printed program neglects to explain is that the choral piece consists of repetitions of a brief passage (in German) from Psalms 8.2. (English translation: “From the mouths of children and infants you create praise for yourself.”)

Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

After standing amidst the strolling singers in the Pärt gallery, the audience moves to the adjoining Reich gallery, where monumental striped murals (a motif more typically associated with Bridget Riley than Richter) flank the seated public and the players from Ensemble Signal (a contemporary-music group):

Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

As you can see, Richter’s artworks are worth perusing in their own right, and I spent time doing just that when I could freely roam the premises during The Shed’s press preview. But those two galleries are open to the general public only during the scheduled 80-minute performances, for which timed tickets (ranging in price from $25 to $39, depending on the day you attend) are required. For a place that prides itself on openness and egalitarianism, that’s somewhat off-putting.

What you’ll experience in the Pärt gallery (as you’ll see in the CultureGrrl Video, below) is a meditative spiritual chant (lots of “Hallelujahs”), emanating from choir members who are interspersed with the audience members and are at first indistinguishable from them as they stroll the space, examining the paintings, and then singing beautifully.

In the Reich gallery, we time-travel back to the Psychedelic Sixties (shades of Joshua Light Show), getting high on vibrant, hypnotic projections that throb and morph to Reich’s gradually changing stream of music. The patterns, which start as stripes (echoing the murals on the walls), go through a series of complicated transformations, sometimes seeming to assume figurative shapes.

Near the end of the film, co-created with Corinna Belz, the visual transformations speed up, careening in reverse, until we finish where we began—vibrant stripes:

Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Reich told me afterwards that Richter had dictated to him the parameters of the music designed to accompany his images: “He gave me the time code. I was in a straightjacket.” As Reich described it in The Shed’s printed program, his brief from Richter, designed to complement the artist’s complex structural plan for his visuals (as outlined here), forced the composer to return to “a more systematic way of working,” which he had “spent over 40 years moving away from.”

Steve said he had welcomed that challenge. I welcomed the result.

Steve Reich (in cap) and conductor Brad Lubman, co-artistic director of Ensemble Signal, taking their bows
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I did a doubletake, though, when I first saw the project’s title. For me, the “Reich Richter” juxtaposition triggered jarring thoughts of the connection between the German painter’s family and the Nazis. Gerhard was too young to fight in WWII, but his uncle (who died in combat) and his father did.

This unfortunate association, presumably unintended by The Shed, recurred during a press-preview discussion at which Obrist repeatedly mispronounced the composer’s name as “Rykh” (as in “Third Reich”) instead of “Rysh” (Steve’s preference).

Hans Ulrich Obrist, left, and Alex Poots, The Shed’s artistic director, at the press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also somewhat jarring for me was seeing world-renowned opera soprano Renée Fleming cast in a decidedly un-divalike role in Anne Carson‘s confounding play, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy (to May 19, directed by Katie Mitchell), which conflates the Marilyn Monroe legend with the ancient story of Helen of Troy. Having been thrilled by Fleming’s many star turns at the Metropolitan Opera—particularly a late-career, poignant performance in her signature role as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier’’—I was expecting an audience ovation upon her entrance.

Instead, she was met with silence as she took her seat in a drab office, assuming the role of a self-effacing, mousy secretary who had been hired to take dictation for a translation of Euripides’s “Helen” by a boss (played by Ben Whishaw) whose gender becomes increasingly fluid, while his psyche grows increasingly unstable. (Saying more would be a spoiler.)

The stenographer (who occasionally sings) becomes increasingly attuned to her boss’s thoughts and I sensed that Fleming’s character was gradually assuming the function of a Greek chorus, while the play was morphing from wry comedy to bleak tragedy. It helps to know that the playwright, Carson, is a classics professor and translator of ancient Greek plays. That said, I agree with Ben Brantley‘s observation in his NY Times review that “Ms. Carson is not the most immediately accessible of writers.”

Now come join me for some snippets from the performances. (No photography was allowed in “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy.”) My vignettes open with excerpts from “Reich Richter Pärt,” followed by a look at the tenebrous Donnelly (with a soprano cameo by CultureGrrl at the end), and a brief excerpt from an unexceptional big-band performance that was part of Soundtrack of America (now concluded), which features an accidentally well-timed walk-on by Shed architect Liz Diller, striding in front of my video camera to the tune of appropriate lyrics from “Favorite Foreign Movie” by Steely Dan:

This is your big debut. It sure looks good on you.

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