Time Out NY, Issue 462: August 5-12, 2004

Treasure hunt

To get a sneak peek at the New Museum’s new digs you’ll need a map and sensible shoes

By Linda Yablonsky

Shake hands with the Bowery. It is there, at number 235 (near Prince Street), that the New Museum of Contemporary Art will soon break ground on its new home, slated to open in spring 2006. The model by Tokyo-based architects Sejima+Nishizawa/ SANAA resembles a tall, uneven stack of six white shoeboxes. The design bears little relation to the 19th-century structures the museum will claim as neighbors, and it is certain to provoke strong feelings from locals and visitors alike. In September, the longtime Soho institution will temporarily relocate to Chelsea. But at the moment the museum is open to the air as well as the public in the form of a walking tour intended to introduce contemporary-art aficionados to the Bowery and the neighborhood to the incoming wave of art.

The project’s focus on subversion and fair trade accounts for its title, “Counter Culture.” What is actually on display, aside from the area itself, are five installations hidden in plain sight at cooperating businesses near the museum’s future location, currently a parking lot. (Maps of the sites are available there.) The tour is what one wishes the discovery of all art could be: a treasure hunt. Its true value, however, lies less with object-oriented aesthetics than with a social idealism pragmatic enough to acknowledge the consumer as its central figure. The result is a series of impromptu exchanges of cash, conversation and culture at each stop along the route, experiences unpredictable enough to keep one coming back for more.

The artists – Julianne Swartz, Jean Shin, Marion Wilson, Ricardo Miranda Zuniga and the three-member collective Flux Factory – work in very disparate media, from air ducts to video to kitchen sinks. A sixth artist, Raul Vincent Enriquez, has provided a rather tedious Acoustiguide program (available as a $2 CD or a free MP3 download from www.newmuseum.org), consisting of you-are-there interviews with the artists during the planning stages of each project.

Ambling among the five art sites, the temptation to patronize local businesses is almost irresistible, especially with summer sale signs in every window. This may be an intended consequence of the New Museum’s effort to ingratiate itself with a community in whose gentrification it is now deeply invested. Recent high-rises and high-end pubs crowd from memory the pushcarts that ruled the area a century ago.

For her part, sculptor Marion Wilson is keeping the street-vending tradition alive by parking a pushcart of her own design in front of the Bowery Mission. If her plastic-flower-bedecked blue umbrella is more Little Lulu than Sabrett, her wares – $20 coconut goblets, $30 printed T-shirts and small resin paperweights inlaid with locks of hair contributed by the mission’s male residents – are a stark contrast with the $500 evening bags for sale just a block away.

Visitors to the recent Whitney Biennial may recall Julianne Swartz’s installation of sound conduits and tiny lenses filling the museum’s stairwell. Here, she runs fat, bright-yellow tubing up the fa├žade of the Sunshine Hotel and into a second-floor lounge. Passersby who pause to look into a street-level opening may find themselves gazing into a periscope at the upside-down talking head of a resident named Nelson at the other end. During my visit, nearly everyone walking past stopped to chat with him – the tube doubles as an intercom, of sorts – about the art.

The most elaborate (and amusing) work is Flux Factory’s mock-espionage command center set up behind a makeshift door in the storeroom of a martial arts supply store. There, willing “operatives” can pick up coded missions instructing them to spy on the neighborhood and report back their findings. (As one operative noted, most people are “too busy shopping” to notice they’re under surveillance.)

Inside the front entrance of Public, a restaurant in a former Elizabeth Street parking garage, Shin has transformed industrial sinks from Bowery kitchen suppliers into suds-filled wishing wells. Intrepid explorers who venture into a garagelike gallery on an alley off Rivington Street will find a duct-work sculpture by Zuniga, whose digital animations capture three Bowery denizens as they testify to the neighborhood’s changes over the past 150 years.

Most of the work in “Counter Culture” has a similar earnestness but, unlike Zuniga’s piece, seeks audience participation – and that is a good thing. If the show’s value as art is debatable, as an experiment in cultural diplomacy, it is a welcome success.