Buffalo is widely recognized as a birthplace of American urban architecture, and the city is dominated by a landmark skyline of late-19th- and early 20th–century buildings as well as an extensive network of urban parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. But like other cities located in the so-called rust belt, that storied civic past has since given way to gradual disrepair. Recent efforts have restored some of Buffalo’s architectural history, though with many downtown buildings still boarded up and a 1950s expressway coursing through the centre of Olmsted’s sprawling Delaware Park, there remains a palpable sense that Buffalo is a city perpetually balanced between two worlds.
So it was fitting that the city’s multi-venue biennial exhibition event Beyond/In Western New York would open last Thursday with a dramatic high-wire walk by French performance artist Didier Pasquette. Orchestrated by the exhibition’s international project consultant, Bruce Ferguson, and staged just before dusk, it took less than three minutes for Pasquette to make his way between the Lady Liberty–topped towers of the downtown Liberty Building as hundreds of curious onlookers crowded the streets and adjacent buildings below. Reports on the late-night news and on the front page of the next day’s local paper may have been slightly bemused, but as a kick-off spectacle it perfectly captured the conceptual energy promised by the event’s 2010 theme, “Alternating Currents.”
Ranging across 27 galleries and exhibition sites and featuring work by more than 100 artists, many of them Canadian, Beyond/In takes a snapshot view of art practices located within a 300-kilometre radius of Buffalo. Each venue is curated independently and with varying results, but the overall collaborative nature of the event is a model of institutional and international partnership worth noting.
Even before entering the Albright-Knox Art Gallery it’s clear that many of the Beyond/In works gathered here are set up to cross wires between contemporary art and the gallery’s pre-eminent collection of old master and abstract expressionist works. At the roadside entranceway to the gallery, the wry media critique of Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins’ kinetic billboard and park bench sculpture, In Sit You, doubles for passing motorists as an unintentional but effective abstract art beacon. Inside, James Carl and Micah Lexier complement dedicated gallery installations of their work with subtle interventions on the permanent collection, including one of Carl’s classically modelled Jalousie sculptures and a sequence of Lexier’s trademark arrows. Buffalo artist Mark Shepherd’s CCD-Me Not Umbrella (Sentient Survival Kit) further confuses the currents of an institutional art experience and spectactorship with a trio of real-time surveillance devices that transmit the movements of gallery viewers, complete with commentary, to a series of remote monitors. British artist Andy Goldsworthy measures the “disruption forced by season change” in video footage of a rainstorm sweeping across the gallery’s marble-stepped former entrance and a work-in-process that will transport a set of boulders from the base of Niagara Falls to the gallery’s back lawn, where they will be heated to create an elemental mist during the winter months.
New York City–based artists Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood’s The Confectionary Wonders of Buffalo is sure to make a sharp material contrast to the primordial nature of Goldsworthy’s boulders. Located in front of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (just across an expressway interchange from the Albright-Knox), the work is a collection of ornate cakes designed to mimic iconic architectural buildings from Buffalo’s past and present. There’s also a link here to the city’s industrial history as a centre for flour and cake-mix production. Enclosed in a display vitrine that gives the work an appropriate museological edge, the cakes have been left by the artists to slowly decompose during the course of the exhibition. By the time Goldsworthy’s boulders are in place, Dion and Sherwood’s confectionary cityscape should be nicely rotted and collapsed.
Located in a former light-bulb factory, the Buffalo Arts Studio also touches on the uneasy charge between natural and man-made environments. In Hamilton-area art collective TH&B’s (aka Simon Frank, Dave Hind, Ivan Jurakic and Tor Lukasik-Foss) Swarm, the top half of a full-scale, transformer-equipped utility pole has been infected with an insect-like massing of burrs. In their site-specific installation Hive, burrs are tightly packed into a corner of the gallery’s electrical utility room. Both offer a clever collision of organic and electric realities brought to life with the static hum of raw power. That same pulse of dangerous beauty appears in Steadfast, a digitally enhanced video work by New York artist Phil Hastings that captures the hypnotic threat of crashing waves and ice in a mid-winter storm on Lake Erie.
Canadian curator and “Beyond/In” project director John Massier delivers the perspective-bending paradox of explosive power and captured energy in his exhibition at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center. Enclosed within a purpose-built room in the gallery, Daniel Young and Christian Giroux’s video installation 50 Light Fixtures from Home Depot knocks viewers’ impressions of light, space and mass production off balance in a mind-bending sequence of generic ceiling lamps and light fixtures brilliantly lit in a similarly white-walled room. Buffalo art duo Virocode (Peter D’Auria and Andrea Mancuso) take equal measure of the fleeting presence of time and space in their slow-motion video projection of exploding water balloons, Evolving Moisture. And finally, Buffalo artist Ben Van Dyke’s installation literally explodes the printed word and communication strategies in a typographically based installation spread across the gallery’s walls.
There’s plenty more to be seen in Beyond/In, and through all of the exhibition sites this notion of “Alternating Currents” manages not only to engage the diversity of art practices on both sides of the border, but also to send viewers’ thoughts constantly back to the charged history and uncertain future of the city itself.