It’s already dark. I enter the space from an old entrance and am told by the curator (Alessandro Facente) that I can wander anywhere in the space, and that I don’t need to worry; he will be other only other person here. I take the offered flashlight and make my way into the unlit, cavernous space of what used to be Essex Street Market. Things here are slowly moving toward entropy.
Fixtures are rusting; cabinets are empty; glass displays are askew; storage closets are open and distended. And then there’s a countdown clock displaying red digital numbers that tell me there are perhaps 5 hours left until something (momentous?) happens. Everything is so quiet I feel all the physiological alerts come online as I look. My eyes go as wide as they can. I want to step into a closed, walk-in freezer just to see what’s inside, but then I think if I do, I won’t be found again for days or maybe weeks. Everything here is dying or dead, abandoned as if had pestilence had swept through and scooped up all the life forms mid-sentence. It’s like the set of a dystopian film, I Am Legend, or some such, a husk of civilization. Creatures I can’t describe or fully imagine likely wait for me in the darkness, up a winding staircase I don’t attempt. I keep walking. Then I see Facente still standing sentinel by the door and I hear nothing else move, so I keep going.
Eventually I find my way to a clean, well-lighted place, a place I recognize. But here it’s bare white walls and only those white walls with a few flood lights placed high, and tilted downward so that I can’t quite look them in the eye, can’t see into Mount Olympus. It’s actually the old space for the Cuchifritos Gallery where I have seen a few exhibitions, and the last time I was here, a raucous performance by Ayana Evans. And to my left, right outside the pristine environs of the civilized oasis is a room full of refuse: milk crates, cut aluminum tubing stuffed with insulating material, a barstool, a fan, paint buckets, fixtures and extraneous cans and containers. All the base materials that go into making the spectral white cube the immaculate space it is.
There is a parallel here between what this place was, the old Essex Street Market, and the shiny new complex that it has become, just a bit further south on this street: Essex Crossing development, a 1.9 million-square-foot complex with retail, office space, apartments, and parks. The market, which had existed since the 1940s, was a quintessential New York institution: offering cuisine from Japan, Peru, Mexico, Thailand, Santo Domingo, and other countries. Now this once venerable market is described as “dingy,” and “low-ceilinged” in comparison to “a state-of-the-art, award-winning-architect-designed space.” Can an oasis bring on amnesia? Can a promise also be a betrayal?
This work, 00 00 00 00 00 [Essex Street Retail Market] a site-specific installation by Andrea Nacciarriti suggests that the white cube is both a brilliant achievement and a crypt. It’s where we bury our fear of being mortal, of wasting away, of slouching into entropy. Ever since the aesthetic was institutionalized by the Museum of Modern Art in the early half of the 20th century, the arts community has wrestled with its meaning. And the ramifications of constructing such spaces became more apparent when the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty published his “Inside the White Cube,” essay in Artforum. The sacralization process which the white cube enables and ennobles now seems, in some instances, to leach the significance from work that needs to be alive. The lights in the gallery are both wonderful and terrifying because they are an achievement of carefully calibrated organization of a space — the opposite of disorder and decline. But then there is nothing of us left in these denuded spaces. We have absented ourselves and then ask the question: Where have we gone?
The exhibition, 00 00 00 00 00 [Essex Street Retail Market] continues at the Historic Essex Street Market building (120 Essex St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 17th. It was curated by Alessandro Facente.