Ernesto Pujol’s Time After Us & Adam Marnie’s Phantom Limb
As published on ArtsCultureBeat.com on October 8, 2013 [a class-run site as part of the M.A. Arts & Culture concentration at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism].
On the morning of Thursday, October 3rd, Ernesto Pujol began a twenty-four hour process of restoration at Saint Paul’s Chapel in downtown Manhattan, which was a home base for rescue workers during both 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. Pujol isn’t a carpenter, however—he’s a social choreographer.
A part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line festival, Pujol’s performance, titled Time After Us, involved twenty-four artists walking counterclockwise, backwards, in silence for twenty-four hours. The artist, who spent four years as a cloistered monk in a monastery, sought to salvage the spiritual space from the hustle and bustle of the city in order to create one of solitude, contemplation, and healing. “…What if you could have that second chance of going back to the past?” Pujol asked in a talk on the Buddhist concept of Ignorance at the Rubin Museum of Art the previous week.
Meanwhile, just five subway stops and a brisk walk north to the west side of Chelsea, a gallery was demonstrating what that second chance might look like. The Derek Eller Gallery, a small, minimalist space tucked away behind the High Line on an industrial street, was closed for just under three months after damage from Hurricane Sandy forced them to replace the entire floor and part of the walls. They reopened this past January, but instead of merely rebuilding and moving on, the gallerists decided to revisit that traumatic period in their most recent exhibition.
Phantom Limb, which ran from September 7 to October 5, was Adam Marnie’s second exhibition at the Derek Eller Gallery. Whereas much of his previous work involved the mixing of many mediums—photography, architecture, and sculpture, among others—Phantom Limb separated them out in stark contrast. The main element of Marnie’s exhibition was a striking architectural intrusion: the bottom portion of the gallery walls was missing. Marnie had cut out the walls at twenty-four inches from the floor, exactly as contractors had done to repair the water damage after the hurricane.
“There was a sense upon first coming in here after Adam had done this, something that felt a little hard…a connection with a certain trauma,” said Isaac Lyles, associate director at the gallery. “It’s very site specific and very resonant in that way, because that was less than a year ago.” The exposed structural beams and electrical wires made the gallery seem unsound, as if the walls would collapse under their own weight at any moment.
Much like Pujol, the gallery had gone back to the past to “revisit, repair, and restore.” Something that Pujol tells his performers is that “the performance has already happened, we have already performed it, and all we’re going to do is remember it, we’re going to remember it together,” he explained in the talk at the Rubin Museum. Marnie’s exhibit, too, seemed as if it has already happened and that this representation was merely a shared memory. One piece, Stills, spoke to this overlap in time. In it, the viewer saw images of a simple vase of flowers on a pedestal; Marnie photographed it in available light over the course of five days. The sequence, installed in a row from the left side of the gallery all around to the right, showed the flowers slowly withering and dying; but following the photographs in the opposite direction revealed a much different scene, one in which the bouquet miraculously comes back to life and heals itself. This depiction of rebirth hanging over the deconstructed walls seemed to say something about the gallery itself: that perhaps, if the gallery were to revisit that traumatic moment, it, too, could mend itself from the inside out.
Why dredge up such painful memories? At the Rubin, Pujol revealed that, in his mind, “the human spirit is this entity that wants to survive loss, disease, death, suffering; it wants to survive it and it wants to transcend it.” In this vein, Pujol’s performance offered a public, silent space for this kind of transcendence to people who are often caught up in an environment of constant noise and clutter. It is not so much about reliving an event as it is about using its memory to improve the present.
In bringing the Derek Eller Gallery back to its recent state of reconstruction, Marnie aimed not only to transcend that moment, but also to create one for contemplation. “He’s not trying to…recreate the event,” explained Lyles,” it’s a reflection. The [hurricane] showed the vulnerability of New York City and Manhattan, which was very surprising. [He’s offering a] certain transparency, like how are things built, what are cities built on, how are they are strong and how are they vulnerable?”
In exposing the city’s weaknesses, there remains the question of how to begin the process of reconstruction. At the same exact time that Pujol’s performance was opening up an avenue for observers to “repair” their past, the Derek Eller Gallery was doing some healing of its own. Marnie had started to fill in the twenty-four inch wall cut, with new dry wall, tape, and paint, little by little each day until the end of the exhibition. The purpose of this architectural shift was to “claim repair and rupture as part of the artwork,” the gallery’s website stated.
“I think what Adam is more interested in…is the process,” said Lyles about the wall repairs, “just going through the labor of both covering things up, which obviously will change the relationship of how you see everything else, showing kind of a very living relationship between the work.”
Both Pujol’s and Marnie’s works sought to return to a moment in history in order to deconstruct it, either mentally or physically, explore its significance, and restore it to a better condition. It was as if Pujol’s act of turning back the clock by walking backwards in St. Paul’s Chapel simultaneously rewound time for the Derek Eller Gallery, so that it, too, could shed its New York City “armor,” as Pujol put it, and become vulnerable again. In making the gallery’s reparation a public act as well, Marnie’s work completed that of Pujol’s. While New York City may have rebuilt itself after many a traumatic event, these two artists offered it, through silence and memory, a much deeper regeneration.