At the Galleries: Toronto and New York

By Wilkin, Karen | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

At the Galleries: Toronto and New York


Wilkin, Karen, The Hudson Review


At the Galleries: Toronto and New York

TWO OF THE BIGGEST EVENTS OF LAST SEASON-literally and figuratively-were the openings, a few days apart, of Richard Serra's sculpture retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and Daniel Libeskind's addition to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. Both were impressive in scale and conception, both were celebrations of state-of-the-art engineering, and both were tributes to the power of ego and will.

First, the much anticipated Libeskind building. Ever since the incomprehensibly complicated steelwork of the wildly irregular ROM addition began to rise against the museum's original, dignified buff brick building, it provoked enormous curiosity and, often, hostility. "A space ship that crashed into the old building," was a typical description. Whenever I visited during construction, my Toronto friends insisted on patronizing a rooftop bar opposite the site, to check on progress, but even from street level, the prismatic behemoth made its evolution impossible to ignore, projecting its sharp-edged forms up and out, at irrational angles. If nothing else, the astonishingly intricate structure was fascinating just as virtuoso engineering and construction. How did they determine those difficult shapes and joints? And how did they manage to get those eccentrically cut girders into place? Eventually, the structure was completed, the cladding applied, the strangely placed, strangely shaped windows inserted, and, at last, the public was allowed to enter what is now known as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Interest ran high; on the opening weekend, with free admission all night, the lines to get in stretched for blocks.

The jury is still out on the aluminum-clad exterior. "More like a shed than a crystal," I heard, more than once, the multifaceted (if rather boxy) shape notwithstanding. But the interior? First, there's a new fullheight entrance lobby that turns the north façade of the old ROM into an interior wall. A pair of enormous, angular forms dangle from above, housing skylights. To the right is the obligatory shop, which competes with the entrance to the "Spirit House." (Except for this and the zigzag "Stair of Wonders," Libeskind's habit of giving cringe-making names to parts of his buildings has mercifully been suppressed here.) The "Spirit House," however, is not particularly spiritual; rather, it's a dim, fullheight space between the paired upper floor galleries, traversed by connecting bridges. At ground level, thirteen overscaled, sharp-edged stainless steel chairs-Libeskind's first attempt at furniture-have been arranged, so that visitors may meditate, aided by a sound installation created by John Oswald. Maybe. Since the great majority of the ROM's public come because of dinosaur- or armor-obsessed nine-year-olds, meditation seems unlikely. On my last visit, people tried the chairs briefly and moved on. "I feel like I'm on Star Trek," said one young man, reaching along the extended planes flanking the seat, "but I don't know where to put my arms." Lovers of the limited edition chairs, each with Libeskind's signature etched on it, can acquire them at the shop for $12,000 (Canadian) apiece. Lovers of the sound installation can attend a daily performance, at 5:17 PM, of Oswald's Qui, a chorale of all languages spoken by Canadians, as of the 2002 census.

Upstairs, the "Crystal" houses three floors of new gallery space and a "luxury restaurant"; below, there's one exhibition gallery and some backstage space, inaccessible to the public. As with Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, the galleries were, for the most part, empty for the opening, to show off the architecture. The good news is that the interior turns out to be less frenetic and more pleasing than the rather brutal exterior suggests, while the apparently arbitrarily placed, arbitrarily shaped windows seem less arbitrary. The light-filled restaurant is at the very top. Next come the fourth-floor galleries, one for textiles and costumes, the other, the "Institute of Contemporary Culture"-read "exhibitions designed to create new contexts for works from the ROM's wide-ranging collections," which include fossils, Chinese tombs, historical Canadian art, and a lot else. …

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