Looking hard for art

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Stella and I took the Dragon Bus to New York Tuesday. Mostly, it was Stella’s day — devoted to shopping and drinking frappacinos at Starbucks. But Stella likes art and she would allow me one art event.

My choice was “Phantom Arch” at White Columns, a group show featuring Mark Shetabi’s installation,“The Palace at 4 am.” I’d seen “Palace” at Locks Gallery and was excited to see it in New York.

As luck would have it, White Columns isn’t open on Tuesdays. The show’s up until Aug. 2 and I’ll have to go back.

Plan B, since we would be in midtown, was Mariko Mori’s “Wave UFO,” the Public Art Fund piece in the atrium of the office building at 56th and Madison. I had read about the piece and it intrigued me. A spaceship-like pod that people enter three at a time to have their brainwaves read and projected on the ceiling — creating a kind of we-are-one, techno-medico psychedelic trip.

Any public art that takes a risk is for me. And this one seemed riskier than most, intimate and personal, and at the same time didactic and a little silly. Also, it asked you to relinquish a lot of control and I’m interested in art that does that. Why do some artists play God and ask you to sit inside a box to receive a message (James Turrell does this, too)? Having spent too much time in confession boxes receiving questionable advice and negative messages as a child, I have an aversion to this work. Yet I’m fascinated.

We arrived in the atrium around 2 pm and the first thing we noticed was that it was as hot inside as it was outside. No refreshing indoor air here amidst the potted trees and the coffee bar.

But “Wave UFO,” shiny, sleek and mysterious, looked great and its shape, characterized as a drop of water, is a hoot. With its upturned tail and dolphin-esque sleekness, it’s a cartoon teardrop on its side, something right out of Sailor Moon. I couldn’t wait to get my brain hooked up and read.

Then we saw the sign. “Wave UFO” was closed. No reason given and no helpful attendant to explain. I called the Public Art Fund and the woman who answered said it was closed because of the heat. She thought maybe they’d be up and running the next day.

I understand that public art should uplift and provide pleasure. And I know that spending 7 minutes inside a windowless pod hooked up to electrodes might make me irritable, but I was disappointed nonetheless.

Not for long, though. Five minutes later, sitting in the adjoining Trump Towers enjoying the cool air and a snack, we received the New York consolation prize — a celebrity sighting.

Donald Trump, striding the halls like Paul Bunyan, passed by on his way to — and from — getting a magazine at the nearby newsstand. Trump, a large man, was accompanied by a short bodyguard who followed a few paces behind.

After I explained to Stella who Donald Trump was, we went downtown and were treated to our third non-art event of the day — the absence of Forrest “Frosty” Myers’ 1972 minimalist piece, “The Wall” at Houston and Broadway. The ghost was there but the grid of blue girders sticking out from the wall was definitely gone.

I remembered reading that the building owner wanted the piece removed so he could put up banner advertising in its place. There’s no advertising up yet and the wall now looks terrible — pock-marked and brutalized. I never liked the piece but it made me sad to thinkof it as a casualty of somebody’s bottom line.

My real art experience of the day took place on the bus going home. For the 30 minutes it took us to get from Chinatown to the new Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel, I watched Stella take pictures out the bus window with the digital camera. After a day of trying and failing to consume art it was a pleasure to watch someone engaged in producing art.

Stella has an MTV/“Real World” aesthetic that accepts pretty much anything as a photo opportunity. She clicked off an almost steady stream of shots, managing to nail the hazy atmosphere of that Tuesday evening in July without really trying.

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