Juliana Barwick & Grouper at the Guggenheim

Via Scott Lindenbaum's Instagram

On Friday night I made my way to the Guggenheim for the first night of Divine Ricochet, a three-part series celebrating the work of the sculptor John Chamberlain with live music as a soundtrack. The first evening was a double feature of Juliana Barwick and Grouper, and I was readying myself for an evening of sculpture and noise with cold medicine to cure my chest congestion. My ascent up the rotunda’s famed stairs was dizzier than usual. The security guards working the event that evening gave me sideways looks as I weaved up and up, trying to get a handle on Chamberlain’s sculptures. Perhaps a handicap, perhaps the only way to experience it, my chest cold gave the night out a surreal tinge.

The museum is making the case—easily, I might add—that Chamberlain was a giant in the field of nonrepresentational art. He twisted sheets of metal and wadded foam like Pollock made love with paint. I wavered from foot to foot, finding titles like “Phantom Snatch” and “Women’s Voices” provocative without an argument, reminding myself that an articulation doesn’t need to be about anything. In front of one of the foam sculptures, I overheard a bespectacled patron wondering to her friends, “What’s in foam?” Smokey Robinson was being played over the speakers, and the rotunda rendered his voice ghostly with plenty of echo. In a Chamberlain retrospective the Guggenheim has concocted an ideal setting for a date. The work is sensual and eccentric, the perfect foundation for couples and friends catching up, alike.

With the added draw of the concert series to accentuate the artist’s musicality, it’s a no-brainer curio. The turnout was a scene. I saw: an airbrushed Laura Palmer tee; a Guns ‘n Roses denim jacket; a girl aping the girl from Sleigh Bells; a guy that looked exactly like Vangelis, possibly without trying; a full three-piece plaid suit; so many silk pajama trousers and chambray shirts; top knots and purple buzzes; plaid, glasses, more plaid; leather jackets, dresses paired with bobby socks; lace party dresses, neon wedges; guys that looked like Rachel Maddow, almost flocking together; that one guy, you know the one, wearing a San Francisco Giants hat to show off his bicoastal pride; a girl in a dress so sheer I know what kind of underwear she was wearing; and Coachella might have been 3,000 miles away and more exposed to the elements, but one girl took her shoes off and sat barefoot throughout the sets. Where did all these people come from? What do they do for money? Do they have the Brian Eno apps on their iPhones? I had never seen so many brunettes in my life.

Juliana Barwick was a sweetheart and introduced herself to the crowd before she began looping her voice and singing her guts out. There’s a cathedral effect going on in Barwick’s music, calling to mind the previously snarked-upon Eno and Music for Airports, but her beats and repeating melodies give a woozy effect that is equally in step with hip hop producer Clams Casino, albeit in a more stripped-down way that diverges from Clams’ ’90s house cribbing. Her long brown hair and the silent projection of trees and light that served as her backdrop gave off a lucid hippy vibe. One couple held hands throughout and glared at the numerous chatterers. Plenty were sitting cross-legged and closing their eyes. One woman was literally asleep. It was half yoga session, half normal show with people looking around to see who else was looking around. When it was over, I heard a girl explain the appeal: “When I was a kid, my mom would always put tapes on to help me go to sleep.” The artistry of recreating that sound, at times assertive and at other times uncertainly vulnerable, could easily be overlooked in favor of the warmth Barwick radiates. I looked for merch and found her records on sale where the Guggenheim generally hands out the audio tours.

Grouper—née Liz Harris—was a very different set, though no less trippy. Forgoing an introduction for sitting down on the floor and setting an example for the audience, who followed suit and likewise collapsed, Harris began to twiddle and tweak an apocalyptic drone treasure that would do Eliane Radigue proud. The footage that played behind her was the opposite of Barwick’s Tree of Life-esque montage: my notes read like a confused Rorschach test taker. Was it flesh? Underwater diving? Outer space? Kenneth Anger test reels? A woman off to the side clutched her skirts and swayed while the guy manning the sound levels dozed off. Being on the floor gave us all the revelation that the vibrations we were feeling were coming from the music. I shifted uneasily and the couple holding hands and glaring turned to hold hands and glare at me. An older woman with perfect posture and a North Face fleece sat down between them and me, and we leaned forward together into the Wurlitzer organ pulses. I looked in vain for merch, forgetting that the whole point of site-specific music excludes me rocking to this piece on the 1 train.

It will be interesting to see what will repeat and what will be introduced on the other two nights of Divine Ricochet. Next up is Cold Cave, and the series closes with Zola Jesus. One thing I predict: Nika Roza’s hair will definitely match the décor.

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