Art Finds Its Way Back to Fun

David Byrne has always been pretentious; that’s part of his charm. From the Talking Heads’ first single in 1977, “Love—Building on Fire,” to his debut as screenwriter and director with True Stories, and to myriad other projects—including, of all things, an opera about Imelda Marcos—Mr. Byrne has proved that faux naïveté, arty self-consciousness and adroitly deployed nerdiness can be diverting and sometimes irresistible.

Notwithstanding a clinical fascination with the common folk, Mr. Byrne is a creature inconceivable outside Manhattan’s artier districts. Closer in aesthetic to the neo-Dadaist Robert Rauschenberg than to the touched-by-God folk painter Howard Finster (both of whom provided Talking Heads CD cover illustrations), Mr. Byrne skims art’s surface with a canny understanding of its cultural roles. His irony endears him to the boho elite; his rhythms, to the mainstream.

Mr. Byrne’s latest venture, Playing the Building, is typically whimsical, brainy, deadpan and arch. Originally seen in Stockholm in 2005, it’s been installed at the Battery Maritime Building in collaboration with Creative Time, an organization that uses neglected public spaces as venues for art. Its best-known work was the post-9/11 Tribute In Light (2002), wherein the night sky was transformed into a forum for mass elegy.

After signing a waiver releasing Creative Time, the city and other sponsoring agencies from liability—the Maritime Building has been “loaned” by them in the cause of art—you walk up a stairwell with peeling paint, bare light bulbs and a boarded-up working area. What follows is a similarly run-down industrial area measuring 9,000 square feet. It’s a grand and romantic space. Mr. Byrne is enamored of urban decay.

Within this picturesque setting, Mr. Byrne has placed a thrift shop organ from which tubes ascend and connect to the surrounding architecture. “Please Play” is stenciled in bright yellow on the floor, encouraging visitors to sit at a keyboard divided into sections labeled “motors,” “pipes” and “pillars.” Plunk at the keys: What follows are keening flute-like sounds, clacking and dull vibrations, like jackhammers heard through a concrete wall.

Mr. Byrne’s piece is a playful variant on the avant-garde (he must know how toothless that conceit has become), and it’s winning, clever and fun. Visitors show no compunction stepping up to and sitting down at the keyboard; they waited patiently in line listening to other people’s “songs.” Smiles greet it. Kids love it. Playing the Building is, in the best sense of the phrase, user-friendly.


MR. BYRNE’S CELEBRITY undoubtedly accounts for some visitors to the Maritime Building and so, too, for those craning their necks to look at Chris Burden’s What My Dad Gave Me (2008), on display at Rockefeller Center and sponsored by the Public Art Fund. Actually, Mr. Burden is a celebrity primarily to art world cognescenti. His most renowned (and infamous) performance was Shoot (1971), wherein Mr. Burden had himself, yes, shot. In another, he was nailed to a VW bug.

There are no crucifixions or artillery at 30 Rock. What we get, instead, is a homage to New York City and Rockefeller Center itself. What My Dad Gave Me is a 65-foot-tall stainless steel structure that towers over the Fifth Avenue entrance to Channel Gardens. Mr. Burden’s sculpture couldn’t be any more different from Rene Paul Chambellan’s bronzes of mythological creatures dotting the adjacent fountains. Here industry and minimalism meet handicraft and symbolism. Donald Judd, introduce yourself to neoclassicist nostalgia.

The title intimates biographical intent, but don’t go hunting for facets of Mr. Burden’s psychological makeup. The work stems from childhood in general and toys in particular. It’s assembled from replications of erector set parts. There are about a million of them—yes, that’s right, a million—that have been individually fitted into boxes and stacked with no small amount of labor. Mr. Burden has, apparently, explored erector sets as a medium for over a decade. You can’t help but admire his ingenuity. He’s learned a lot about engineering.

Architecture, too. What My Dad Gave Me is a mock skyscraper. Segmented into five rectangular sections that diminish in size as they ascend, it’s streamlined and almost heroically generic. The parcel-by-parcel construction doesn’t lend itself to specificity—in many ways, the piece is all about construction. Still, Mr. Burden surely considered the context. Stand on the east side of Fifth Avenue, in front of Saks, and you’ll see how the pieces rhyme with 30 Rock. “Plop Art” is sculpture that’s been thrust, willy-nilly, onto public spaces. What My Dad Gave Me is anti-plop.

Circling Mr. Burden’s sculpture, it’s either lighter than air or beyond dense; funnels of vision are transformed into ceaselessly interwoven geometry. Depending on the time of day, What My Dad Give Me glows in fluctuating patches, or glimmers sharply—achieving an almost Impressionist character. Light renders the piece intangible even as it confirms its physicality. How much Mr. Burden embodies brooding dichotomies like “power and technology” or “enlightenment and destruction” (as is claimed in the press materials) is less important than how good the thing is to look at. Tourists stopped and stared at it with bemused admiration. You will, too.

“David Byrne: Playing the Building” is at the Battery Maritime Building, 10 South Street, until Aug. 10. “Chris Burden: What My Dad Gave Me” is at Rockefeller Center until July 19. Art Finds Its Way Back to Fun