The French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster turned the Guggenheim Museum into a sinking Titanic on the evening of April 14th. The day was the 99th anniversary of the tragedy, which took 1,517 lives. “T.1912” was a site-specific performance, which was perfectly synchronized with the museum’s structure, and included the Wordless Music Orchestra, lighting and audience participation.
The audience had to use the entrance for the Peter B. Lewis Theater and walk underground to the museum’s rotunda in a roundabout way. From the start, we felt as if we were boarding a huge boat. An usher guided “passengers” to one of three “decks.” When standing alongside what became the ship’s rail, looking down, one saw the orchestra, which was preparing to perform on the ground floor.
Under yellowish lighting, the orchestra started playing The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) composed by Gavin Bryars. The music (it includes a hymn reported to have been played by the ship’s orchestra as the boat went down) is mixed with clinking sounds of everyday objects and spoken words, and has a pious air. Watching other people on the opposite side helped the audience to deeply sympathize. In the middle of the performance, ushers guided people toward the ground floor, where the orchestra was performing. After all the people had gathered, the boat completely sank; the lighting turned into the color of the deep ocean–chilly and dark blue.
Gonzalez-Foerster is superb at transforming spaces. Her most famous work is TH. 2058, which transformed Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2008 into a refugee camp set in London in 2058. Viewers who remember Promenade (2007) will know that T. 1912 is not the first work in which she relates the Guggenheim’s space to water. For Promenade, the third ramp of the museum was filled with the sound of a rainstorm. This time, the museum was fully submerged in the deep ocean. Lifesaving rubber tubes and iceberg-like white covered tables contributed to the boat-like atmosphere; a cap and a captain’s telescope on a table near the orchestra were among the witty details.
Just as the Titanic’s structure embodied the social strata of the passengers, the higher ramp at the museum was for “first class” audience and the other two ramps were for general attendees. Even though there was a hierarchy, as long as we were literally in the same boat, ou fates were the same: sinking and awaiting death. Benjamin Guggenheim, a brother of Solomon Guggenheim, was a victim just the same as the lowliest passenger. Death and nature: In the face of those implacable powers, human beings are left completely vulnerable, regardless of their social status or wealth.
Outside of the huge gloomy boat, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The flowers contrasted distinctly with the bluish color inside the boat-like museum. Seeing the beautiful spring flowers was evidence that I was alive and on the earth, not in the deep ocean. I was a survivor.