Bohemians at the Gate

Ryoji Ikeda's Spectra (2004), set in Saarinen-terminal tunnel.Photo: Dean Kaufman

Controversies that kick up in the art world are invariably fought on the high ground of principle—“public responsibility,” “First Amendment rights,” and so on—but usually resemble a comedy of manners. They exude the sweet, slightly rotten smell of hypocrisy as everyone takes a position of high dudgeon and righteousness. The shutdown last week of the Terminal 5 exhibit at John F. Kennedy International Airport may become that kind of affair. Organized by Rachel K. Ward, the show was a contemporary meditation on travel staged in Eero Saarinen’s celebrated and now unused TWA terminal. Opened in 1962 and shaped like an abstract bird, his terminal is a marvelous celebration of the wheeling curve rather than the contained rectangle. It rises on the wings of a dream.

Nobody now knows what to do with Saarinen’s building, a work of utopian optimism embedded in the hellish, concrete mediocrity of JFK. As a result, Ward’s proposal to mount a show there appealed to officials of the Port Authority, which oversees the landmarked building. And JetBlue, which plans to build a new terminal next to the Saarinen, stepped forward as the main corporate sponsor. Then two things went awry. One of the show’s artists, Vanessa Beecroft, submitted a work called VB54 that included images of black women in ankle chains, thereby evoking slavery and the detention of illegal immigrants. And the women were nearly naked.

Uh-oh! Nearly naked black women! JetBlue forced Ward to yank the work on a technicality—namely, that she did not submit it to the sponsors for approval. Perhaps she wanted to generate a bit of angry buzz from men-in-suits; that has become almost traditional in shows of contemporary art. But the removal was also an overreaction. VB54 is just a piece of conventional political art. As for the nakedness, children in New York see much worse every day on the newsstands. Isn’t New York in 2004 a place that can tolerate a little nakedness in a work of art? The second problem occurred at an opening party when some art punks drank too much, vomited, and defaced walls. Barf, naked ladies, defilement: What next? The Port Authority shut down the exhibit. Another overreaction. The organizers obviously mismanaged the party, but that was hardly reason to close the entire show. If it’s truly concerned about protecting the Saarinen, the Port Authority should renovate the fast-deteriorating building. And JetBlue should reconsider its new terminal, which, like the tower looming over Grand Central station, will forever diminish a magical place. Saarinen wanted travelers to walk up stairs toward a vast window that symbolized an open future. Now they’ll just see another building instead of the sky.

“Ironically, the show that may never be seen was unusually quiet and modest by today’s standards.”

Ironically, the show that may never be seen was unusually quiet and modest by today’s standards. It contrasted Saarinen’s visionary view of travel with today’s more jaded and self-conscious sensibilities. Wherever you go, many of these artists suggested, you take your private baggage with you. You perform on your own private stage. On some stairs, Jennifer & Kevin McCoy constructed tiny sets on which toylike figures were filmed playing out the drama of their lives. In the baggage area, Toland Grinnell placed a trunk and suitcases that, when opened, created a personal room. Whereas Saarinen probably envisioned an airport shop that sold books about Paris, Rome, and Timbuktu, Tobias Wong—an artist who likes what he calls the “postinteresting”—created a 9/12 Airport Giftshop that sold arty knickknacks, such as a T-shirt that says A LOT OF ART IS BORING. On the arrivals and departures board, Jenny Holzer posted aphorisms.

The liveliest art played with the futuristic themes of the terminal. Using one-way mirrors, Dan Graham created a three-sided sculpture that reflected the circles and bending space of the building. Viewers saw their own reflections superimposed upon Saarinen’s forms, a symbol of their engagement with his sensibility. The most dramatic work on view was Ryoji Ikeda’s sound-and-light Spectra, set in Saarinen’s famous round tunnel. Viewers walked toward two bright lights. A wavering high-pitched sound disoriented their senses, seeming to change space and time: It would not have been surprising to hear Rod Serling announce, “You have entered the Twilight Zone.”

There’s still a chance the show will reopen. Those involved are apparently looking for a face-saving compromise. It’s foolish, in any case, to waste the effort that went into creating this unusually situated exhibit. The mixture of time and sensibility in “Terminal 5” is surreally stimulating, even when the contemporary art is weak. The show certainly makes for a provocative afternoon: You can take the new AirTrain, which resembles a Jetsons monorail, to Saarinen’s birdport. And then, as you look at the art present, you’ll inevitably find yourself wondering about past and future.

Bohemians at the Gate