Many visitors to New York City are familiar with the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA for short. On its walls hang some of the most breathtaking and beautiful pieces of art in the world. The collection includes luminaries such as Van Gogh, Dali, and Matisse. Paintings such as ‘Starry Night’ and ‘Persistence of Memory’ draw visitors from all over the world.
However, less than three miles away in Long Island City, Queens, there is a second lesser known MoMA – MoMA PS1; so called because the museum is in a former New York Public School that last closed its doors to students in 1963. 13 years later, it reopened as one of the first and largest museums dedicated solely to contemporary art.
My visit started normal enough – the first gallery we entered contained paintings from Henry Taylor, a Los Angeles artist who portrays everyday people, scenes, and objects (such as family members, Denny’s restaurants, and boxes of detergent) through his art.
John’s Note: Right after I took this picture, I was quickly scolded for taking pictures inside the museum, so I apologize for the relative lack of pictures from here on out – every picture I took had to be done so discretely.
After I finished browsing this first gallery, any resemblance that MoMA PS1 had to a typical museum was quickly abandoned. I realized this when entering the next gallery as I was greeted with a sign bearing a simple warning:
“This gallery exhibit contains live animals.”
There was NO way I wasn’t going in the gallery after seeing that. The sign didn’t allude to what types of animals were inside or whether or not we’d be able to interact with them, it solely indicated that there were animals in the gallery. My curiosity piqued.
The gallery itself actually contained several separate old classrooms and in the first room, I found a relatively simple ‘piece’ of art – it was comprised of a couch, plenty of empty boxes, some small mouse toys, a litter box, and three cats. The room almost looked like someone’s apartment – not what I was used to seeing at an art museum.
But the cats weren’t just subjects in an art exhibit, they were also available for adoption to visitors. Once all the cats in the exhibit were adopted, they were replaced with new cats from a local shelter. The artist responsible for the piece is passionate about animals and this was their way of helping raise awareness for the of cats still looking for homes.
The second room had a very large terrarium in the middle of it with a large and statuesque iguana basking under a heat lamp. Similar to the cat room, this piece aimed to raise awareness as well. In this case, it was demonstrating what the baby iguanas that people buy in pet stores can grow into, and the space they require to live. Since space is at a premium in New York City, the message was that it doesn’t make much sense for many New Yorkers to be keeping these iguanas as pets.
The third gallery did not actually contain living animals, but it did have plenty of living plants. In it, a medley of real fruits and vegetables stood on individual pillars. Despite the produce being part of the art exhibit, it all looked very fresh. A small sign indicated that the ingredients were turned into a salad at a specific time that the guests in the museum are able to enjoy.
Is it art? I don’t know, but I thought it was a pretty unique idea.
All three of these rooms had me thinking about art in ways I never have before. This art wasn’t just visual – it was interactive. You could reach out and scratch the cats behind the ear, feel the heat of the iguanas lamp, and eat the eggplant that was part of an art exhibit earlier in the day – all things I’d never done in an art museum before.
40 Voices in Unison
As I continued to wander through the old school halls of MoMA PS1, I encountered more unique galleries. One of my favorites was in a large, open room with 40 individual speakers standing in an elliptical shape around the perimeter. When I entered, I could only hear quiet conversations emanating from them.
From the center of the room it sounded like a cluttered mess of conversations but as I approached each individual speaker, I was able to make out bits and pieces of conversations. Each speaker represented a specific microphone placement in front of a unique performer in the group where the audio track was recorded. Suddenly, the conversation stopped.
And then from the quietness, a voice began singing. I was standing near the front of the room and as far as I could tell, the voice was coming from just one of the speakers near the back. Before long it was joined by several more in harmony, all singing a 16th century Latin chorale hymn. Slowly and steadily, the other voices joined in. Before long, each and every speaker in the room had a unique voice singing, all together in harmony.
From the center of the room it sounded like a typical church choir performance – one strong unified voice. However, as I walked around the perimeter of the room, I listened in on individual singers selectively by standing next to a specific speaker. For the first time ever, I heard the individual melodies that make up the much more complex harmonies of a church choir. The song was beautiful, but being able to hear each and every singer individually added another layer of depth to the haunting song.
Hearing the unique singers’ voices gave me a greater appreciation for their talent. I was amazed at not only how well they can sing, but also by the fact that they can keep track of what unique and individual part they’re singing while being surrounded by 39 other people all singing seemingly different parts. As I stood and listened, I closed my eyes to appreciate it more deeply – something I’d never done in an art museum before.
MoMA PS1 continued to surprise me with each new gallery. I had pet a cat and listened to 40 voices harmonize in unison all in the confines of an old public school. But the last gallery was perhaps the most surprising – and my personal favorite.
As we climbed the stairs to the next floor of the museum, I heard more music. This time, it wasn’t classical church choir music. Instead, it was an upbeat piano and electric guitar driven rock-and-roll song – similar to something Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band might play. There were no vocals, and when I got closer to the room I realized that it was the same short tune playing on an infinite loop.
As I approached the doorway, I began to wonder what would be accompanying the music in the room. To my surprise, there was nothing in the room. It just looked like an old, empty classroom – devoid of desks, chalkboards, and backpacks. The sun was streaming through the windows, and the room did have a nice view of Long Island City, plus the song was actually pretty catchy – it was a perfectly pleasant place to be – but it still didn’t seem like art to me.
It read, ‘Chicken Burrito, Steak Burrito.’
This only confused me more. What did a chicken burrito and a steak burrito have to do with rock music and an empty classroom? But just as I was about to give up on the piece, my friend pointed out something on the windowsill. There, basking in the sun lay two burritos – presumably containing chicken and steak. I loved it.
I’m sure plenty of people will say that this is not art. To a certain extent, I’d agree. It’s not art in the traditional sense. It didn’t require a lot of artistic talent. I’m not sure if it required much creativity either.
But when I saw the burritos, I immediately started laughing. I loved the sense of humor about the piece. I was confused by the music and the setting, but it all made me feel good. The anonymous rock and roll on continuous repeat, the sunshine streaming in through the classroom windows, and the two burritos resting on the window sill as the star subjects of the artwork – somehow it all worked.
Everything in this museum made me feel something. There were no boring pieces at MoMA PS1. I have been to other museums containing artistic treasures, historical artifacts, and famous paintings. But none of them offered the surprise and whimsy of PS1. After seeing the famous pieces at the superstar museums of New York City, MoMA PS1 was a refreshing and unexpected change of pace.
Have you ever had any unexpected surprises at a museum?
22-25 Jackson Avenue,
Long Island City, NY, 11101
Hours: 12:00pm – 6:00pm Thursday – Monday, closed Tuesday and Wednesday
Cost: $10 adults, $5 students and seniors
TRR Tips: I’ll leave you with a simple tip on this one: keep an open mind!
40 part motet picture courtesy of ps1.org