Fire in Chelsea! Family Business Gallery Burns Show

Visitors warm themselves by fire, 'drink Christmas tree'

  • On Thursday night Ari Marcopoulos, curator of the most recent show at the Family Business gallery in Chelsea, was making a Molotov cocktail in a Snapple bottle. Outside, about 50 people were gathered around a trashcan overflowing with Xeroxed photographs, drawings, receipts, business cards, pornography and other paper ephemera that were on the gallery walls less than an hour before. You can probably guess where this is going.

    When Gallerist arrived earlier that evening, Mr. Marcopoulos was busy ripping the work off the walls, and more than a few passersby stopped in their tracks to watch. The pieces were by an unknown number of artists—anyone could come in during the course of the one-month show and use the gallery’s staple gun to make a contribution.

    “Can I take one?” a young man asked Mr. Marcopoulos, admiring a large black-and-white picture of a bridge. “No,” said the curator, advancing toward the photograph. “Everything gets burned.” Though the young man told Gallerist that he found the destruction a little sad, he proved instrumental in getting it going. When the entire show was in the can and a small crisis over how to start the fire flared up, the young man volunteered to skateboard to the nearest gas station. Mr. Marcopoulos gave him a crumpled $5 bill and he soon returned with a bottle full of gasoline.

    The Molotov cocktail was fashioned with unsettling efficiency (Mr. Marcopoulos only winked devilishly when asked whether he had done this before, though he later delivered a connoisseur’s treatise on bomb-building that left little room for doubt). Asked if he was worried about attracting police attention, Mr. Marcopoulos shrugged dismissively, and said, “If they come, I’ll be gone.”

    They never did. Both the bonfire in the middle of the street and the abundance of alcohol (the crowd was invited to “drink the Christmas tree” constructed out of Pabst Blue Ribbon and tinsel) went unnoticed by the authorities. “Many shows should have ended up in this way,” said Maurizio Cattelan (who co-runs the gallery), before wandering off and asking no one in particular, “Do we have a fire extinguisher?”

    They didn’t, and the conflagration continued. Adventurous viewers leaned in to light cigarettes off the blaze while one young man got a running start and leaped over the can, causing the crowd to gasp and Mr. Cattelan to start jumping up and down nervously, hands stuffed in the pockets of his puffy black jacket.

    “People are warming their hands,” observed Mr. Marcopoulos as he watched the crowd draw closer. “Such a Bronx moment,” Mr. Cattelan said.

    Several viewers noted how the exhibition’s fiery end could be read as a comment on transience. “Life is temporary, why wouldn’t art be?” mused one philosophical fellow who stumbled upon the show just before it went up in flames. Mr. Marcopoulos espoused a different conceptual take on the event: “People enjoy fire.”

    The crowd thinned as the flames died down and soon the exhibition was completely reduced to ash. As Mr. Cattelan made ready to bicycle home, some of the younger attendees headed inside to tag the gallery’s freshly bare walls. “We already have a new show,” said Mr. Cattelan with a grin.