Marthe Ramm Fortun discusses her performance, Inverted Sky, a site specific project at Grand Central Terminal, in New York City. Inverted Sky is a Performa Project co-presented with MTA Arts for Transit and UKS.
Your performance dealt with some prominent historical qualities of Grand Central Terminal, and even the title of your performance "Inverted Sky" references the painted astronomical ceiling in the Main Concourse, which is supposedly reversed to reflect medieval representations of the celestial sphere, as if the vantage point was from above the stars. You also engaged with elements of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' impassioned efforts to save Grand Central Terminal, when it was on the brink of being demolished in 1975. How did you choose which historical aspects of the Terminal to emphasize?
When I enter a historic space, I always look and listen for elements that serve as urgent connection points to current goings-on. Grand Central Terminal was pretty much cleaned up by the time of the centennial, although the editors of The New York Post seem to think otherwise in their derogatory mention of the homeless.
The statues around the clock on Grand Central's south face represent Mercury, Hercules and Minerva. The Roman deities support Cornelius Vanderbilt's self-invented crest, the pine-cone. It is a prominently featured ornament around Grand Central Terminal, symbolic of his amassed wealth. Members of the public become carriers of this iconography. I am interested in the two-faced nature of such a projection, and how the authorities and the retail industry use architecture, iconography and ritual to reinforce their interests. I make formal and poetic suggestions towards breaking through this panopticon.
Often in your performances you interface with bystanders in public spaces, testing thresholds of boundaries, sometimes resulting in both memorizing discomfort and humor. In Inverted Sky, the tour itself became somewhat of a spectacle, with many bodies interfacing with the individuals passing through the Terminal. Your performance mirrored the workings of a tour, as you led a large group of people through a wildly busy, loud, iconic space. You intimately handed out "maps" to each tour participant, with colorful painted abstractions on white handkerchiefs. As a tour of sorts, how did you negotiate the group's movement in a challenging and awe-striking public space, as you repetitively dispersed abstract poetic turns of phrases that harbored factual information?
This landmark is not a museum; it is a transitional space where Apple is now prominently featured with its logo embedded in the sandstone wall, adding an apple to the zodiac sky and the pine-cones. Vanderbilt Hall is stripped of its oak waiting benches to facilitate commercial events. The public is permanently kept out of this area, even at the times when the enormous hall is not in use. Yet, individuals claim the aesthetics of Grand Central Terminal every day in private appropriations of the space. The poetic, ritualistic, economical and political are intertwined and keep on producing new narratives. My trust is with the public; they own the city. They keep giving my work its formal parameters. As an artist, I am the face of the institution and the individual simultaneously. It is important for me to be clear about this predicament. It is the same precarious duality as in the public-private dichotomy that my works deal with. This is why the audience should use me. I am theirs.
While the tour processed under the zodiac, why did you choose to highlight and recite the name of the goddess Minerva, whose name was painted on many of the maps, as well?
Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, born from the head of her father, Jupiter. She was sponsor of the arts as well as commerce, medicine and magic. I have come to think of Grand Central Terminal, too, as a daughter born out of Vanderbilt's head. A great trajectory follows the conception of this lady of Texan marble, sandstone, steel and glass; seven years after Grand Central Terminal's grand opening in 1913, women gained the right to vote in the US. Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven (named The Dada Baroness by Jane Heap, editor of The Little Review) arrived New York in 1913. She roamed Fifth Avenue and stole luxury goods in department stores to collage them with her body, along with found objects and poetry she made up along the way. Both she and the Grand Central Terminal were display cabinets of modernity, miracles of modern engineering.
In 1975, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis extended the Minervean mandate in her imploring letter to Mayor Beame, using all of her remaining powers including explicitly referring to her late husband to have Mayor Beame overrule Judge Saypols' decision to demolish Grand Central Terminal. Jackie was a civilian, albeit a privileged one, and capable of raising a considerable stir. She was a true aesthete and in complete command of her public personae. She even subverted the paparazzi gaze by signing an illicit Hustler Magazine full frontal nude poster, (shot by paparazzi at the Greek island of Scorpius), for Andy Warhol: 'For Andy, with enduring affection, Jackie Montauk'. For the performance I used a copy of Town & Country that features Chloë Sevigny on the front page as part of a feature about society girls gone bad, debutantes straying off the beaten path. In Grand Central Terminal's delinquent years, until Vanderbilt Hall was closed to the public in 1998, the terminal housed a population of homeless people, and the magnificent zodiac sky was covered in black tobacco soot. A black soot square is kept to remind us of our mal-conduct in this space. In my mind, the restrictions public space is subjected to, reflects our general standing as a civilization. For example, in 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, ACT UP performed an epic action that closed down the terminal during rush hour, releasing banners along the balconies and a centerpiece lifted by pink balloons saying "Money for AIDS, not War". Although the Terminal was shut down, no arrests were made. The activists were protected by freedom of speech. I think such a lack of punishment would never occur today, and that freedom of speech is under constant negation. We need Minerva to keep voicing her concerns.
You often use books, magazines, song line sheets and anything textual in your work -- in Inverted Sky, you had a painted shopping bag full of such items. Can you tell us about your embodied presentation of printed word or textual ephemera through performance?
It is an invitation; an entry point between myself, the audience, and the institution. Printed and painted matter is available to the touch, sight and smell. It connects the tactile with the intellectual realm. I think of text and imagery as pliable materials that are at our disposal, re-assembling in our collective subconscious into new formations. This is a common ground in which to share references, feelings and experiences. Such faculties can be presented as gifts, citations, instructions, history or abstract experiences - quite simply, transactions between people. I am obsessed with shopping bags, their ability to carry everything except what they advertise for, their persistence. The ubiquitous smiley, "have a nice day" bag will outlive us all. I used a Bloomingdale's paper bag as a portable library for "Inverted Sky" - the bag originally contained the hankies I later painted for the performance. What I desire with these exchanges is to claim what is rightly ours; brand names, Asger Jorns' color purple, the tortoise pattern on the uniforms of the troops that patrol Grand Central Terminal, and the soot thumb tack in her painted sky in order to pull the sky towards us.