Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Unbridgeable Gap: Andrea Fraser Brings Sing Sing to the Whitney

Open Plan: Andrea Fraser at The Whitney Museum

February 26 to March 13, 2016
99 Gansevoort St
New York, 212 570 3600

Installation view, "Open Plan: Andrea Fraser," 2016, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Courtesy of the Museum.
Installation view, “Open Plan: Andrea Fraser,” 2016, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Courtesy of the Museum.

The Whitney’s elevator doors slid apart to reveal an open room marked by expanse and emptiness, illuminated by the slipping rays of a setting sun. In spite of a modest number of occupants, the space resounded with a roar of commotion. Andrea Fraser’s expansive sound-installation, Down the River (2016), inhabited the fifth floor like a ghost, hovering at the limits of awareness, threatening to become manifest. The audio was recorded in the A-block of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, which, although 32 miles distant from the museum, also looks onto the Hudson River and the landscape beyond.

The deception implicit in the layered sounds of museum and prison was never fully realized by Fraser’s installation. It was only too easy to discern that the recorded audio was not of the museum space, for surely the expected tourists and Chelsea gallery-hoppers were not hammering and shouting across an echoing expanse; it was not the museum’s loudspeaker that echoed through the recording. Content was not the only indication of displacement. Saturated with texture and reverberation, the sounds were overwritten by the spaces in which they were captured. With eyes closed, the clamor of voices and the scrape and clang of metal recreated a place that was almost tangible when you could escape the visual. Walking from one window to the other, I sensed my passage through a variety of spaces: the loudspeaker reflected and mutated, inscrutable in its own echo and attesting a vast scale. A man murmured and the interstices between projection and reverberation indicated that he had spoken to the walls of a small room. Some voices were startling in their appropriateness, seeming too vividly real in contrast with the unnatural character of the other sounds. In their uncanny realism, they threatened to reach out and pull me into that smaller space. In these uncomfortable moments, Fraser brings her viewers the magic of transportation tainted by the shock of realizing the place they have been brought to is one that they never want to be. I felt that if I looked up, I would find myself as a fly on the wall of Sing Sing, as if there was another expanse just beyond the gallery. When I heard voices in the recording, I would involuntarily halt, as though I had been called or spoken to. Because, in a sense, I had.

Should we be fooled? The failure of this recording to alter the museum in which it was housed perhaps necessarily indicates the fundamental incompatibility of these spaces. The emptiness of the floor met the litany in a contrast that expressed that museum halls are never truly empty, are always echoing with implications and suppressions. Fraser’s text attempted to tie the Whitney and Sing Sing in the tradition of institutional critique for which the artist is known. The installation’s title refers explicitly to a slang term for incarceration, “going up the river.” In the same manner that the audio itself transports its listener to the place of the prison, the title reorients its audience; we are asked to consider what it is to be a prisoner who exists in captivity, looking from afar toward the museum, a space which is characterized by influx of attendants who choose to enter and may depart at will. The work is a biting condemnation of the viewers that it addresses, who, in their mere presence, empower the museum and further the distances between these institutions.

Last December at Light Industry, in Brooklyn, Fraser expressed regrets regarding the caustic, joking form that her performances often take; works such as Museum Highlights (1989) and Little Frank and His Carp (2001) condescend not only to the museums that they are executed in, but also, to an extent, to the audience that visits such institutions. Within the group of onlookers there is an even further divide between those who know the insincerity of her behavior and those who accept her actions at face-value. Wearily, Fraser observed that, no matter the ultimate recipient of her critique, the audience always laughed hardest at those of its own members who did not understand her performance for what it was. Joke’s on you. Although this installation is not farcical in the same manner, instead, following the more serious tone of recent works such as L1% Cest Moi (2011) or Theres No Place Like Home (2012), Fraser continues to manipulate her audience. However, this joke is on all of us, even the artist herself.

I began to walk to the stairs, passing first through the sharper sounds of a single cell, then on to the din of the hall, which was punctuated by the opening and closing of heavy metal gates. I paused. I stood as a single point in the expanse of the Whitney’s fifth floor, an expanse that felt like infinitude and possibility. Diagonally across the wooden floor, a couple walked towards each other, taking pictures that depicted the sequentially closed distance between them. At the massive windows, groups of visitors stand pointing out landmarks of the New York skyline, impervious to the rattles and clanks that shook through the room. Criticism is most painful when it contains glimmers of truth, that some gaps cannot be bridged.