Exhibitions USA

High Line over-understates John Cage commemoration

The composer’s minimalist film and sound work is somewhat lost in a small passageway on the elevated park

John Cage, One11 and 103, 1992 (Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix)

A screening of John Cage’s One11 and 103, 1992, opened without much fanfare on Thursday on the High Line, the elevated park along Manhattan’s West Side. Installed to celebrated what would be the composer and artist’s 100th birthday, the piece itself is a contemplative melding of sound and light, but its installation in a dim passageway detracts from the experience of viewing the work.

On the hot, late afternoon of the opening, the High Line was teeming with visitors, lounging on the wooden benches or strolling down the former elevated railway, enjoying the riverside views. After tearing ourselves away from the inviting refuge of wildflowers, it took a few minutes to actually locate Cage’s work. The piece is installed in the High Line’s 14th Street Passage, a corridor still under construction that cuts through the surrounding buildings. A screen is hung between two concrete pillars, on which Cage’s film, One11, is being shown while his composition 103 serves as the soundtrack.

Very few passersby seemed to realise they were walking by an art work (one visitor in fact was found napping on a nearby table) perhaps because for much of the film, the screen is blank or lit by simple, white shapes that could look like falling sunlight. Cage decribed One11 as “a film without subject. There is light but no persons, no things, no ideas about repetition and variation. It is meaningless activity which is nonetheless communicative, like light itself, escaping our attention as communication because it has no content to restrict its transforming and informing power.” Sometimes you can pick out snatches of notes or tones from the composition, but it is often difficult to hear the subtle music clearly over the low din of Chelsea traffic.

Adding to the distraction, a group of volunteers were putting up chairs and yoga mats on the other side of the passageway. When asked what they were setting up for, they said it was a screening of the popular dance movie “Step Up”, starting at 7pm. The Cage screening had its hours cut short on its opening day, from 1pm to 6pm, but it is due to be shown until 11pm most days until 13 September.

We spoke to one visitor, James McLoughlin, who stopped to admire the work after reading the wall text. He had been walking along the park and knew there were art works dotted along the paths. “It’s curious,” he said of Cage’s piece, “initially I thought it was just sound and then I saw the screen.” Asked what he thought of its installation in the passage, he thought it would look better after dark, and pointed out the nearby construction netting and plywood walls. “Maybe it’s not the best time to see it.”

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