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Editor’s note: We asked two Hyperallergic contributors to visit No Longer Empty’s This Side of Paradise exhibition in the Bronx. The other post is here.
In the last several years, the term “pop up” has become ubiquitous in the art world. The majority of these related, newfound endeavors — brief exhibitions, stores and happenings — make charming use of relatively sparse, small storefronts. In this vein, I’ve come to expect a bit of space-maximizing ingenuity from the pop-up crowd. And yet I couldn’t have been more pleased to find the exact opposite at No Longer Empty‘s latest temporary exhibition, This Side of Paradise. The sprawling show occupies more than 20 rooms of the abandoned Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx and takes its name from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, a fitting tale of greed and social ambition.
The show brings together 32 artists and collectives to take over one of the most auspicious and idiosyncratic buildings I’ve ever had the pleasure of entering. The Andrew Freedman Home was originally conceived and operated as a retirement home for the elderly and formerly wealthy. There, in a sprawling villa on the once prestigious Grand Concourse, disinherited and aged members of “society” could live out the rest of their days in the manner to which they were accustomed. The now decrepit building maintains a measure of its former opulence; through motes of dust it’s easy to picture the white-glove dinner service and live music once enjoyed within the walls.
The exhibition invites local and international artists to reflect on the irony of the building’s original purpose. Two large gallery spaces on the first floor used for group showings allow for thematic conversation. The work in the first room, directly to the right of the crumbling grand entrance, engages directly with the outside community. An interactive bike map allows visitors to plot their routes throughout the Bronx. John Ahearn’s project on the back wall of the gallery recruited local children from the Bronx Headstart program (housed in the building’s ground floor) to create a plaster cast wall relief out of their hands. Melanie Crean’s “Once Upon a Time in the Bronx” offered local teenagers the opportunity to re-imagine classic fairy tales based on their own surroundings, hopes and fears.
Powerful though it was, this leg of the exhibition seemed out of place, a tacked-on attempt to relate to the community. Rather than engage with local residents about their perceptions of this strange building and its role in society, these community projects seemed a little one-dimensional. I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth; I only wish the organizers had delved deeper and taken advantage of what seems like a precious opportunity for engagement.
In the second room, artists reacted to the building itself and to the social conventions embodied by the property. Federico Uribe’s re-creation of one of Freedman’s famous Persian rugs is composed of found objects from everyday life (crutches, scissors, pencils and pens, for example) and lends particular poignancy to the devalued status of the site. Nicky Enright’s sonic sculpture “The Ravages” combines a ragtag group of disused typewriters found onsite with a derelict piano. A nostalgic cacophony of typewriter percussion and piano music wafts gently from inside the dusty hulk, and the melancholic assemblage seems to play for the building’s deceased residents.
Upstairs, 20 bedrooms hold a series of site-specific installations that, combined, are equal parts biennial, pop up and haunted house. The moldering surroundings give the whole thing a special kind of morbid power.
Mario Chamorro and Daniel Paluska’s “The Happy Post Project and Playing Games” is an exuberant installation of Post-it notes that encourages visitors to draw a picture of the thing that makes them happiest. This project, while relatively simple and innocent (like the internet for five-year-olds), encourages the kind of group self-expression (albeit in a relatively innocuous way) that seemed missing in much of the rest of the house.
The most impressive room installation was How and Nosm’s “Reflections,” in which a combination of cardboard pyramid stalagmites, mirrors and red lights turned the space into a twilight fairy tale of slightly nightmarish proportions. While invoking the eerie, off-putting vibe of an abandoned building on Halloween, the artists impressively managed to straddle the line between discomfort and fascination.
Justen Ladda’s “Like Money, Like Water” had a similar haunted-house feel. His skeleton figures are caught midstream, peeing dollar signs onto the floor of one of the bedrooms. I chuckled to myself but didn’t linger.
Sylvia Plachy visited the Freedman Home in July of 1980 to take photographs for a Village Voice article written by Vivian Gornick. For This Side of Paradise, Plachy has re-created one of the rooms from her photographs. Her installation brings a special lonely reflection to the space, and there’s something disconcerting about this time capsule of domesticity. It is strange to see a reminder of the human element that once ambled up and down these walls.
I left Plachy’s room and the top floor of the home fulfilled but also slightly crestfallen. Though the exhibition brought me to the Bronx, introduced me to new art and told me a particularly odd and interesting story I might otherwise not have known, I’m not sure that the exhibition teaches us to think about or see social issues in any different light. In that sense, it could be viewed as a missed opportunity. Attempts to include the outside community of the Bronx, including a room of photographs featuring the work of local businesses, seemed a little static. One can only hope that the organizers of No Longer Empty and members of the Bronx community will view This Side of Paradise as a launch point, an experiment to provoke more meaningful dialogue in the future.
This Side of Paradise continues at the Andrew Freeman Home (1125 Grand Concourse, the Bronx) through June 5.