MoMA PS1 felt positively religious last Friday. The venue’s 10th-anniversary-of-9/11 exhibition, “September 11”—an ambitious project curated by Peter Eleey and primarily featuring work predating the event, and pertaining, more abstractly, to notions of civic, personal and national trauma—filled the second floor with an elegiac hush (punctuated, it must be noted, by John Williams’ score for The Patriot and by Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, back in the same room that housed it a month after the towers fell.)
On the third floor, it was the last day of an exhibition focusing on Vancouver artist Jeremy Shaw’s Best Minds Part One (Expanded). Fortuitously, the installation lay just down the hall from conceptualist James Turrell’s Meeting, a staple of the PS1 space since 1986. Turrell’s piece has been seen and commented on by many; essentially, it consists of a ceiling-less white room, open to the sky, and lined on all four sides by Quaker-style wooden pews. Friday’s weather was unseasonably hot; the sky was cloudless, a blinding near-azure, making Turrell’s room seem particularly magnificent and surreal.
The references to Quakerism and mysticism in Meeting are unmistakably present in Shaw’s work, a towering three-channel, three-wall video installation featuring footage from a straightedge hardcore concert in Vancouver. Shaw couldn’t have a better segue, really—and although the work depicts an incident in Vancouver, its themes are inexorably American. For starters, Shaw’s title is a reference to the first line of “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem about the mood of catastrophe and reckoning in mid-20th-century America: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
The members of the straightedge movement are Shaw’s quirky stand-ins for Ginsberg’s wayward “best minds.” Straightedge grew out of punk rock, but rejects its parent genre’s perceived excesses; instead, devotees practice “clean” living—rejecting drugs and alcohol, and often embracing modes of sexual abstinence and veganism. A main tenet of the movement is an ability to locate euphoria in sobriety: a faith in the power of radical lucidity.
It’s no stretch to connect the movement Shaw depicts—by definition, one of temperance—to the early American sectarianism alluded to by Turrell. The Quakers, with their focus on the purity of the scriptures, on individual pathways to God and, yet, on the importance of community in worship, resonate in Best Minds. So do the Shakers, “shaking Quakers,” who embodied ideals of American transcendentalism, their worship ceremonies a frenzy of circular dancing (arguably the forerunner to rock-concert rituals such as moshing) and chanting that often became glossolalia.
Shaw’s great idea in Best Minds is to slow down his footage in order to emphasize the grace underlying his dancers’ flailing. What results is, simple though it may be, a thing of stunning beauty. The Shakers were known for their integration of men and women in services; as is to be expected, hardcore is still very much a dude-ist territory. What Shaw does, however, is to feminize this potentially forbidding display. There are high kicks and whirling arms; there are, often, synchronized movements, generated from Shaker-style call-and-response, where one person mirrors what another is doing, causing a chain reaction of gestures. (This was seen in varied form in the news last week, with the “human microphone” of Occupy Wall Street protesters.) The spectacle has hints of a Busby Berkeley musical about it. Curiously, one rarely sees the young men touching each other. Like Quakers, they are together in worship, but each responsible for their own salvation under the hypnotic thrall of devotion. Traditional gender and social roles fall away.
Instead of the music to which they are actually dancing, Shaw gives us his own, a composition based on avant-garde musician William Basinski’s 2002 series The Disintegration Loops. Shaw’s music—appropriate for something inspired by the sound of deteriorating analog tape—has a washed-out, dirge-like quality, complemented by his slowed-down footage, itself looped, and blown up to a point where, due to pixelation, the figures look like pointillist ghosts.
The didactic panel before Best Minds tells us that this element, along with the reference to “Howl,” contributes to the piece’s apocalyptic qualities. One also thinks of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s statement at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter: that America’s colonial founders, despite their utopian gusto, had to build jails and graveyards. Yet Best Minds is also about the kind of generation that lies at the foot of doom. T-shirts and hoodies in Best Minds’ melee read “tragedy” and “terror,” an ironic riposte to the joyous flailing of their wearers. These are names of straightedge bands whose creative engagement directly stems, like so many Americans before them, from their country’s promise of power, and from its associated, mythic shortcomings.
This is the second in a series of postings by assistant editor David Balzer, who is in New York for the fall season.