Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity, curated by MCA James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling and co-curated by MCA Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow Joanna Szupinska, is an exhibition that investigates the longstanding influence of skyscrapers—their form, technology, and message—on contemporary artistic practices. This is not meant to be an exhibition about the skyscraper per se, so those hoping for an exhibition on architecture will certainly be disappointed. Rather, this show is about contemporary art’s infatuation with the skyscraper’s built form.
The exhibition opens with the proclamation that “[a]rtists—including authors, filmmakers, poets, and of course architects—have long been enthralled with the human desire to build farther and farther into the sky, testing technological limits while also embodying a desire for spiritual connection to the heavens.” Curiously, with all this talk about reaching into the sky, it is Tony Tasset’s horizontal i-beam (1996) that opens the show. The wall text sadly limits Tasset’s piece as a utilitarian object turned into an aesthetic one, connecting it with skyscraper development in the late 1800s.
The show is at times lighthearted and at others quite serious. The latter is most evident in the exhibition’s Vulnerable Icons room. Skyscrapers have, inevitably, generated feelings of anxiety, particularly in a post-9/11 world—which is, by far, the focus of the works in this room. Hans-Peter Feldman’s 9/12 Frontpage—a work that consists of 151 international newspapers published on September 12, 2001 is a work that can be quite moving but can’t help but also feel somewhat manipulative. While it is immediately clear that this room deals with anxiety and trauma (particularly that related to September 11th), there is a slow build culminating in Feldman’s work. The piece, which surrounds the viewer, is largely obscured by a moveable wall when first entering the room—there is no avoiding the many images of the burning World Trade Towers. They are literally all around you. The choice to, for the most part, only consider 9/11 incarnations of the traumatic experiences associated with skyscrapers seems calculated—seeking the most heightened emotional reaction possible.
The show is at its most interesting when it considers how people figure into the city and how, more specifically, skyscrapers affect people. Works by Marie Bovo, Michael Wolf, Shizuka Yokomizo, and even Roger Brown—among many others—consider the implications and repercussions of skyscrapers and urban dwelling. Skyscraper presents a range of emotions—from whimsy to despair, isolation to community, from humor to tragedy. Perhaps it is in this way that Skyscraper, a reflection of contemporary life, is at its most successful.