NOTES: “Reich Richter Pärt” and Björk’s “Cornucopia” at The Shed
The Shed, New York’s newest cultural institution and a crown jewel of the controversial Hudson Yards development, is off to an impressive start with its multidisciplinary arts programming.
On a particularly windy Friday afternoon, I stopped by this glistening new arts venue, officially named The Bloomberg Building, to explore and experience my first exhibition, “Reich Richter Pärt”.
It is a strange thing to encounter a brand new arts center in New York City—one not recently refinished or built as the new home of an old company, but rather completely devoid of history, with only the future as its mission.
That mission is to commission original works of art from both established and emerging artists across all forms of expression—from music and dance to digital media, sculpture, and theatre, and everything in between. Some might question the need for yet another such institution amid the crowded cultural landscape of New York, but I welcome it with a disposition of “the more the merrier” and respect for the impeccably curated offerings The Shed has presented to date.
“Reich Richter Pärt” is an immersive, abstract, multimedia meditation on color, sound, and movement with contributions from American composer Steve Reich, German painter Gerhard Richter, and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt—each well-established and revered titans of their respective mediums.
In the first of two expansive galleries on the second level of The Bloomberg Building, patrons encounter three jacquard tapestries and ten floor-to-ceiling wallpaper strips with colorful, abstract inkblot patterns suggestive of medieval stained glass but bearing an exciting complexity of depth and ecstatic motion.
Complementing this viewing, plainclothes “patrons” from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street or Brooklyn Youth Chorus, heretofore mingling among the timed and ticketed crowd, perform Arvo Pärt’s ethereal a capella composition “Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima”—itself an allusion to the Fatima Apparitions of 1917.
In the second gallery, two long, horizontal murals by Richter span the length of the room in which a newly commissioned score by minimalist master Steve Reich is performed live by Ensemble Signal and the International Contemporary Ensemble. The music accompanies a stirring film of Richter’s, in collaboration with Corinna Belz, inspired by the artist’s “Patterns” series in which his 2016 painting “946-3” is digitally divided, mirrored, and repeated in an algorithmic process that produces an almost psychedelic journey of pattern and color.
The cumulative effect of “Reich Richter Pärt” is at once thrilling and poignant, with Reich’s pulsating score, in particular, complementing well the rhythmic visual gymnastics of Richter’s film, lending it a vital, emotional arc. This pairing of three extraordinary artists in such an immersive, experiential way portends well for the future of The Shed’s programming under the keen leadership of Artistic Director and Chief Executive Officer Alex Poots.
I returned to The Shed the next day to attend Icelandic icon Björk’s sold-out concert residency of “Cornucopia”—her original show developed with Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, self-described as a “sci-fi pop concert”, and advertised as “her most elaborate staged concert yet”.
A signature feature of The Shed is The Bloomberg Building’s ability to nearly double its footprint with a rolling exoskeleton that can expand to cover an adjoining plaza and create a massive, 16,000-square-foot open space for performance and exhibition. The eight-concert presentation of “Cornucopia” inaugurates this space, known as The McCourt, and is without a doubt the most technically impressive concert I have ever seen.
A multidisciplinary artist best known as a singer/songwriter, Björk possesses a very specific visual point of view as she works across multiple mediums from fashion and art, to technology and activism. Her music is epic and sweeping, defying easy description but spanning forms from electronic pop to alternative rock, classical, hip-hop, and the avant-garde. In short, she is not easy to cabin, which always makes encounters with her work both unpredictable and unique.
A herald of trumpets introduces over sixty members of The Hamrahlíð Choir from Iceland who open “Cornucopia” with a series of songs, mostly in their mother tongue. The concert itself features nearly twenty songs performed by Björk, mostly from her 2017 album “Utopia”, but also including early hits like “Venus as a Boy” (1993), “Isobel” (1995), and “Hidden Place” (2001)—and the largely a capella mindbender “Mouth's Cradle” (2004).
A fantasia of sight and sound, Björk is accompanied on stage by Vibra, a septet of Icelandic flutists, percussionist Manu Delago (who, for one song, plays water), harpist Katie Buckley, and Bergur Þórisson on electronics—all dressed in futuristic fairy garb and overlaid with transforming digital visual projections by Tobias Gremmler.
Björk periodically enters a custom made reverb chamber to sing organically, free of self-modulation for microphone. At one point, a circular ring of flutes descends from the rafters and is played by four flutists as Björk sings in the middle. At another, it snows.
A repeated theme of the piece, performed on a fungi-shaped series of platforms, is reverence for the earth and concern for its future. A speech by teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is projected before the encore, and Björk’s message is clear: the artist and the activist must work hand-in-hand to help humanity envision a better future of ethical stewardship for our planet. There is no more urgent moment to receive this message than now.