‘Life Between Buildings’ Celebrates the Art in New York’s Open Spaces

The group show at MoMA PS1 reflects on the history of artist-cultivated gardens, from Tom Burr’s dioramas of The Ramble in Central Park to Poncili Creación’s defiant garden gnomes

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BY Maxwell Smith-Holmes in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 08 JUL 22

‘Life Between Buildings’, a group show at MoMA PS1 curated by Jody Graf, unearths a genealogy of artist-cultivated gardens in New York, starting in the late 1960s and continuing into the present. In the exhibition, ‘green’ carries multiple meanings: it is the colour of the spontaneous vegetation celebrated in Cecilia Vicuña’s performance Sidewalk Forests (1981) and of the peaty topography covering Tom Burr’s dioramas of The Ramble in Central Park featuring the ‘desire lines’ repeatedly etched into the ground by cruising gay men (‘A Ramble in Central Park’, 1992). More abstractly, ‘green washing’ connotes the duplicitous environmental marketing strategies employed by the New York real-estate industry that loom throughout the exhibition’s historical narrative – as seen in Aki Onda’s installation Silence Prevails: Lower East Side Community Gardens During the Pandemic (2020), which showcases an archive of Lower East Side community garden ephemera, including a ‘Wanted’ poster for a developer who razed a downtown plot to make way for an apartment building.

Installation view of exhibition Life Between Buildings on view at MoMA PS1 from June 2, 2022 to January 16, 2023. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Steven Paneccasio
‘Life Between Buildings’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: MoMA PS1; photograph: Steven Paneccasio

The artworks and artifacts in ‘Life Between Buildings’ chart how some artists and activists reimagined the city’s open spaces, first in response to 1970s municipal disinvestment and then the privatization of the public domain that accelerated during the Mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani during the late 1990s and has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition presents private property as both material for artistic subversion and a legalistic rationale for exclusion. This dynamic is particularly salient in Gordon Matta-Clark’s purchase at an auction in New York of 15 oddly shaped parcels of land that resulted from cartographic anomalies (‘Fake Estates’, 1973–74’). A photographic montage of a thin grassy strip and a tax certificate from the city’s Real Estate Commission underscores the absurd geographies born from supposedly rational regimes of ownership.  

Works like Matta-Clark’s and David L. Johnson’s Adverse Possessions (2022), which repurposes the metal plates often embedded in the pavements around commercial buildings to assert a landowner’s private property rights, emphasize the gulfs between the city and its actuarial abstractions. In clerical documents, such as property lines or indenture certificates, the colour green takes on yet another significance as a metonym for money. 

Tom Burr. A Ramble in Central Park (two). 1992. Wood, model building materials, and plexiglass. 22 x 22 x 25 3/8 in (56 x 56 x 65.4 cm). Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York.
Tom Burr, A Ramble in Central Park (two), 1992, wood, model building materials and plexiglass, 56 × 56 × 65 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Bortolami, New York.

A suite of paintings by Danielle De Jesus depicts the paradoxical roles of plant-life within the artist’s own community in Bushwick, Brooklyn: there, community gardens foster the Puerto Rican diaspora’s self-determination as well as their displacement as developers advertise ‘green spaces’ to justify raising rents. Rendered atop grids of US$1 bills, scenes of everyday social and vegetal growth, such as We Plant Too (2022), clash with the monetary abstractions embodied in legal tender. Throughout the exhibition, conflicting conceptions of value pit grassroots activists, artists and neighbours against coercive institutions of urban governance. In the face of speculative real-estate investment, the inequitable distribution of city services and restrictions on public space, the figures in De Jesus’s paintings flourish in collective cultivation.

Installation view of exhibition Life Between Buildings on view at MoMA PS1 from June 2, 2022 to January 16, 2023. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Steven Paneccasio
‘Life Between Buildings’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: MoMA PS1; photograph: Steven Paneccasio

In one of the exhibition’s three galleries, a constructed wall stops short, sliced open along its concealed aluminium frame, revealing one portion of a window built into the former school building. A hand-wrought foam garden gnome by the Puerto Rican collective Poncili Creación stands sheepishly behind the base of the exposed gallery wall. These impish figures, titled Dwellers (2022), occupy vacant spaces throughout MoMA PS1, asserting their right to inhabit the space – or to declare ‘adverse possession’ – in defiance of the museum’s claims to private property. Through the vertical sliver of window, the infamous 432 Park Avenue ‘pencil building’ peers above Long Island City’s gentrifying industrial district. By reflecting on the history of community gardens in New York, ‘Life Between Buildings’ suggests new modes of creating value in the city that celebrate the lifeforms thriving in the spaces between buildings as well as the unauthored, collectively produced moments between discrete artworks. 

Main image: Becky Howland, Tied Grass, 1977, photograph of site-specific installation on traffic island bounded by Franklin Street, Varick Street, and West Broadway, digital c-print, 20 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and MoMA PS1

Maxwell Smith-Holmes is a writer. He is PhD candidate at Princeton University School of Architecture. He lives in New York, USA.

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