The Shed Attempts to Inject Culture Into Hudson Yards
The Shed, Manhattan’s newest arts complex, sits on the south side of Hudson Yards, a colossal real-estate development that aspires to be a city unto itself. Some twenty-five billion dollars has been spent to erect an array of office towers, condominiums, and shopping arcades in lower midtown, west of Tenth Avenue. The main buildings resemble skyscrapers that have been expelled from other cities and deposited here, their mismatched angles gesturing in an aesthetic void. Corporate lobbies are done up in billionaire-supervillain décor: pyramid-block walls, skeletonic hanging globes, gold-dusk lighting. An outdoor structure called the Vessel offers stair-climbing exercise for tourists who haven’t yet been worn out by their trek along the High Line. The landscaping on the central plaza has the soulless neatness of a digital architectural rendering. Several stone flower beds are strangely menacing, with jagged edges redolent of counterterrorism chic. The entire assemblage has a prematurely dated air, like one of yesterday’s forgotten tomorrows. There is no trace of New York City’s past, its grit, its chaos.
Within this oligarchic citadel, the Shed cuts a funny, funky profile. Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group, the architects, have given it a deliberately makeshift look: its dominant feature is a puffy-surfaced, parallelogram-shaped shell, which rests on giant wheels and can be rolled out to enclose part of the main plaza. The interiors have an unvarnished, downtownish feel. The main theatre, the McCourt, exists only when the shell is rolled out and bleacher-style risers are set up for the audience. You enter not from the plaza but from Thirtieth Street, which, for now, still looks like Manhattan. In the Shed’s lobby, one finds, instead of perfumes and luxury watches, an aggressively intellectual pop-up bookstore, run by McNally Jackson. More than a few of the titles on offer—“The Marx-Engels Reader,” Theodor W. Adorno’s “Minima Moralia,” works by Angela Davis—seem to protest against the materialism all around.
The artistic director and chief executive of the Shed is the Scottish-born impresario Alex Poots, who came to New York, in 2011, to lead the Park Avenue Armory, after running the Manchester International Festival. He is noted for cross-disciplinary projects that involve notable figures in unexpected configurations. Under his aegis, the rock stars Damon Albarn and Rufus Wainwright moved into opera and the performance artist Marina Abramović worked with the director Robert Wilson. The inaugural season at the Shed, which began in April, has included “Reich Richter Pärt,” a collaboration between the German painter Gerhard Richter and the composers Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt; and “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” in which the actor Ben Whishaw and the soprano Renée Fleming perform a text by the poet Anne Carson. An ad campaign encapsulates the philosophy: “The Shed: Where Ben Whishaw Meets Renée Fleming.”
Collaboration is unimpeachable in theory, but Poots’s approach can lead to a hastily arranged packaging of overscheduled artists—Gesamtkunstwerk by Skype. Programming at the Armory has also shown a tendency toward gigantism: the floor gets covered by water; a flock of sheep wanders around the arena; everyone says, “Wow, cool,” and takes pictures for Instagram. As Zachary Woolfe wrote recently, in the Times, New York has enough venues geared toward “interchangeable boldface names and their flashy output.” What the city needs is sustained support for lesser-known artists, at all stages of their careers.
The Shed is about more than just celebrity allure. This summer, it will present fifty-two emerging artists, in a series titled “Open Call.” Another program, “Dis Obey,” is designed to cultivate “protest and creative action” among New York high-school students. How such initiatives will consort with the capitalist behemoth of Hudson Yards remains to be seen. Adorno, in “Minima Moralia,” defined culture as whatever resists the domination of the material world. At the Shed, which itself cost half a billion dollars, domination is close enough to touch.
“Norma Jeane Baker,” a theatre piece with operatic elements, exemplifies the risks of meet-cute art-making. Carson’s text interweaves the stories of Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe, attempting to deconstruct mythologies of beauty. It is set in an empty New York office on New Year’s Eve, in 1963. As noises of celebration intrude from outside, a nervously fidgeting young man, played by Whishaw, begins a rambling, opaque monologue. A stenographer, played by Fleming, arrives to transcribe his words; it emerges that the monologue is an adaptation of Euripides’ “Helen” garlanded with Monroe motifs. As Whishaw spins out modern-ancient parallels, including a comparison of Arthur Miller to Menelaus, he strips down and changes into drag, eventually assuming Monroe’s look in “The Seven Year Itch.” Fleming, meanwhile, becomes increasingly involved in the shaping of the text, breaking into flights of jazz-inflected song. In a predictable climax, Whishaw ingests champagne and pills, reënacting Monroe’s fatal overdose.
The performers handle their often perplexing assignments adroitly. Whishaw recites the torrent of text with pinpoint flair, his herky-jerky physicality suggesting the young Anthony Perkins. Fleming sings beautifully, as is her wont, and finds an understated wit in the predicament of an upright stenographer caught up in Whishaw’s obsession. The director, Katie Mitchell, known for her severe, oblique productions of theatre and opera (including George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin”), gives ominous momentum to the proceedings. The composer Paul Clark creates arresting soundscapes from samples of Fleming’s voice. Ultimately, though, the fixation on Monroe feels stale—a retread of an already heavily exploited pop-culture tragedy.
“Reich Richter Pärt,” which runs through June 2nd, is a more satisfying construction, probably because it rests on organic connections among the artists. Richter, an artist alert to musical currents ranging from John Cage to Sonic Youth, has painted while listening to works by Reich and Pärt. Those composers, in turn, have long been kindred spirits—minimalist pioneers who invest their music with an austere spirituality. At once exhibition and concert, “Reich Richter Pärt” is presented four times a day, in two gallery spaces. In one, singers who have infiltrated the audience give four consecutive performances of Pärt’s brief choral piece “Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima” (“Three Shepherd Children from Fátima”). On the walls are ornately abstract wallpapers and tapestries that Richter created for the occasion. The day I was there, members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street made a sound at once immaculate and vital. Although the music felt distant from Richter’s images—simple and sombre set against bright and busy—the experience enigmatically cohered.
The second gallery is given over to an animated film based on Richter’s art book “Patterns,” in which an abstraction is successively subdivided, mirrored, and subdivided again, until it is reduced to thin stripes of color. The film, directed by Richter and Corinna Belz, reverses that process, moving from simple stripes to complex shapes. For the occasion, Reich wrote a thirty-seven-minute score for fourteen players, titled “Reich/Richter.” It is one of the composer’s strongest works in recent years, recapturing the spacious, swirling beauty of “Music for 18 Musicians,” his classic piece of the nineteen-seventies. At times, sound and image achieve an exhilarating synchronicity, as when stripes are hurtling across the screen and Reich’s instruments are racing in parallel motion. The daunting task of giving twenty-four performances a week is divided between the new-music groups Ensemble Signal and the International Contemporary Ensemble. During my visit, members of the latter, under the direction of Jeffrey Means, attained a gleaming precision. For a while, I turned away from the hypnotic screen and watched them play: sometimes one art form is sufficient.
The third major offering of the Shed’s opening weeks was “Cornucopia,” an exuberantly overpowering stage show by Björk, with extravagant visual designs by the Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel and the digital artist Tobias Gremmler. Collaboration has always been an essential component of Björk’s œuvre, yet her various alliances with poets, visual artists, pop producers, fashion designers, filmmakers, and instrument inventors all lead back to a relentlessly distinctive personal vision, one that is grounded in her singing and composing. That singleness of purpose sets “Cornucopia” apart from other events at the Shed.
The show, which ends on June 1st, is based largely on Björk’s most recent album, “Utopia,” although the set list also includes earlier songs (“Venus as a Boy,” “Isobel,” “Hidden Place,” “Mouth’s Cradle”). Björk’s lyrics often gesture toward a world in which humanity finds balance with nature. The visual dimension of “Cornucopia” elaborates on that mythic vision, conjuring exotic plant life and animal forms on which Björk’s face is sometimes superimposed. Pictures of intact glaciers accompany the hopeful manifesto of “Future Forever” (“Imagine a future and be in it”). The ensemble includes the Hamrahlid Choir, from Iceland; Viibra, an all-female flute septet; harp, percussion, and electronics; the experimental gospel-inflected musician serpentwithfeet; an echo chamber; and two deep-bass organ pipes, which descend dramatically from the ceiling for “Body Memory.” (“The body memory kicks in, and I trust the unknown / Unfathomable imagination / Surrender to future.”)
Interlaced through these voluptuous hallucinations are premonitions about what kind of dystopia might arise if humanity continues on its present path. Near the end of the show, the audience is shown a stark video message by the teen-age Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who has inspired climate-change strikes by schoolchildren around the world. “The adults are not mature enough to tell it like it is,” Thunberg says. A similar kind of radical innocence has always dwelled in Björk’s work—fantasy as a weapon for change. ♦