What makes an exhibition accessible? And how "normal" is a gallery space, really? For the first time in a long time Sophie McKinnon visits a New York gallery.
Essex Street: Edition One and Two Fantasies
July 15, 2020 – August 21, 2020
"During the months of July and August Essex Street will be open."
An invitation, a call to action, and a call back to Park McArthur’s 2013 exhibition During the month of August ESSEX STREET will be closed, this statement is also the first line of the press release for McArthur’s solo presentation Edition One and Two Fantasies at Essex Street in downtown New York.
This was the first gallery exhibition I had visited since March, when New York city and state went into lockdown in response to the spread of Covid-19. For me, it was important to visit the show in person, to stand physically in the space. The real life of the work in this show, though, is embodied elsewhere. The Essex Street gallery is split across two floors, a smaller one at street level, and another below, bright and high-ceilinged. McArthur’s work explores the fundamental tension between autonomy and dependency, through her experience as a wheelchair user of the interactions it necessitates.
There are two bodies of work in this show: a set of filters from a mechanical breathing machine that McArthur uses when sleeping (titled Fantasies), and two editioned sets of framed print-outs that mirror the inside of an incentive spirometer – a device that measures the volume of breath against rising lines, like a measuring cup. Edition one consists of two pages. Edition two, displayed downstairs, consists of 14 sets of these two pages, framed, and spaced around the room. The document from which the sets are printed is available for free download, to be installed by anyone at any time, in any way they see fit. The exhibition can be seen online with images and alt text, heard with an audio guide, Zoom-toured with gallerist Maxwell Graham, or visited in a captioned video. The Essex Street iteration is in a sense the most inert entry point, calling into question galleries as normalising spaces through which we are conditioned to filter sets of objects or ideas; as a white-wall framework with limited forms of transmission. This work, with its text in reverse, as though looking out from inside of the device, turns your gaze elsewhere to think about what is not seen, felt, explained, or available at this time. For whom is this for, hung at this height, in this arrangement?
Recently I overheard a woman say that ever since she started wearing a face covering, her other senses became dulled. She found it much harder to hear people, to remember things, and to focus. The rapid shift into mask-wearing against the spread of viral droplets has united many in complaint around the world. The global lament for lost mobility and social contact, and reliance on personal protection equipment, also triggered frustrated responses from the disability community. For many of them, this was a routine experience, particularly those who had spent much of their lives self-isolating due to compromised immunity and community infrastructures that did not provide for them. The disparity in care and empathy for those living with illness was thrown into relief when safety measures against infection were now experienced as an inconvenience. Artist and disability activist Sharona Franklin addressed this in March this year saying, “Your ableism is showing.”
McArthur’s reality as a wheelchair-user is central to her work, whether made visible by the elevator lift access to the gallery, or charted by the disposable ventilator filters that cling to the wall like a Duchampian spine, used objects ready to be interpreted as found objects. Her practice seeks to destabilize accepted notions of experience and presentation. Her sculptures, installations, and drawings are not about the thing itself, they use the thing to communicate knowledge about a site or its conditions, and to implicate larger systems that define disability in terms of limitation rather than advocacy and access. In Park’s own terms, she explores dependencies, and what is needed in order for something else to happen.
Her show Ramps (2014) was a room full of temporary access ramps the artist had used to enter institutions all over the city, representing their "as needed" functionality, her own dependence on them to gain access, and what their very existence says about economic structures that restrict accommodations to the bare minimum. The original locations of the ramps bore signs directing people back to the exhibition. The spirometer prints – titled Form found figuring it out, show – present the reality of McArthur’s dependency on medical apparatus to breathe, and are displayed by a gallery dependent on her production of work, as well as certain conventions of display. Her participation in MoMA’s “projects” series in 2019 used the dependence of MoMA on donor, board, and public expectation, with an audio guide that considered these issues directly, and promotional materials for 53W53, a luxury condominium that purchased air rights from the museum and partially funded its recent expansion. She also proposed a new model of dependency and responsibility through a modular steel structure that moved through different configurations of access, care, and facility, serving disabled and non-disabled residents.
McArthur’s work questions rules and hierarchies by reconfiguring the ways we access understanding of those rules. It asks why we make the assumptions that we do, and on whose terms we hinge our expectations. It is subversive without being prescriptive, challenging without immediate target, and a radical revision of the term “site-specific.”
First published ArtZone #84