Throughout the 20th century, the movie industry has been instrumental in turning architectural masterpieces like the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building into universal symbols of entire metropoleis. In the realm of fine art, however, the potential of film, with its emotive appeal, has yet to be fully explored; New York-based artist T. J. Wilcox confirms that the medium still holds much promise, by not only offering a rare bird’s eye view of the city at different times of day and night, but also opening windows onto different moments in the city’s history.
An ode to one of the most iconic skylines in the world, Wilcox’s film installation is based on 24 hours of footage of the New York cityscape, as seen and shot from the roof of his studio building near Union Square. Frames from all hours of day and night have been edited into a 35-minute loop, which is projected—in twelve segments assembled to compose a 360° view of the city—on the concave side of a cylindrical screen. In fact, what makes In the Air a unique experience is the psychological effect of the work’s enveloping presence. Though seeing it from outside is certainly possible, it is best viewed from inside; then, the literal act of looking becomes synonymous with the otherwise metaphorical meaning of being immersed in it. In a way, the process of truly experiencing the work mirrors the process of truly experiencing a city, which, similarly, can only occur from within.
Away from the stressful sounds of the streets, watching the time pass from high up in the air is serenely silent. Though sound is often a defining characteristic of new media installations, extending the range of aesthetic and narrative possibilities at the artist’s disposal, in Wilcox’s installation the void created by the lack of sound actually allows the viewer to become fully absorbed in the imagery projected. A series of short films, most of them archival and each offering a different perspective on the architectural, historical, and socio-cultural landscape of New York, occasionally interrupts the flow of the panoramic footage, but not the absolute silence that characterizes the piece, as the narration is rendered in subtitles—a nod to the era of silent film.
The topics of the projected ‘inserts’ range from the Empire State Building as a landing site for transatlantic zeppelins in the 1920s to an Andy Warhol ‘happening’ on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to New York in 1965 (which, incidentally, coincides with the year Wilcox was born). Of particular note are two clips: a brief biography of Gloria Vanderbilt, which is imbibed with significance due to her familial relationship with Whitney Museum founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and a short documentary featuring an eye-witness’s account of the Twin Towers strike, which resonates uniquely because of the event’s vivid presence in our collective memory. In a post-structuralist framework, the historical vignettes function in a mode similar to the symbolic elements of an academic portrait: each film clip sheds light on a social, cultural, or environmental aspect of the city, much like an accessory in a painting would indicate something about the personal background or social status of the sitter. A combination of historical and contemporary, black-and-white and color footage, these clips not only tell stories related to the city itself, but also allow the viewer a more intimate view into the artist’s sensibilities and sources of inspiration.
New York City has been a hotbed of artistic activity ever since the post-war era, when many members of the European avant-garde, as well as the distinctly American Abstract Expressionists, flocked to the city that some of the most prestigious public collections, influential dealers, and high-profile private collectors of contemporary art call home. What is more, New York as artistic, architectural, and social milieu has become muse to a whole host of artists, such as notable photographers Berenice Abbott and Andreas Feininger, throughout the 20th and into the 21st century; the idiosyncrasies of this piece by T. J. Wilcox strike a beautiful balance between portrait and documentary— neither romantic in the idealized or flattering sense nor completely detached or devoid of emotional appeal.
By Kelley Tialiou
T.J. Wilcox: In The Air, on display at Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York City) until February 9, 2014.