Walking the Walk, in a Rhapsodic New York Ballet
By Ken Johnson
It’s not often that you find a gallery filled with people transfixed by a contemporary video at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But that’s what I discovered at “Street,” an exhibition of works from the museum’s collection centered on a ravishing video projection of that title by the artist James Nares, who also organized the show as a guest curator.
The 61-minute video consists entirely of long, slow-motion pans of people going about their business on the sidewalks and streets of New York City. Mr. Nares used a type of high-speed camera typically trained on subjects like hummingbirds and bullets. Shooting from a moving S.U.V., he recorded scenes in segments of six seconds, the longest stretch for which the camera can record while maintaining high resolution. He edited down 16 hours of recordings to around three minutes — that is, the running time if the video were to be shown at normal speed. Extended to over an hour, the video is a hypnotic, continuous flow of imagery.
The camera moves at a steady pace from right to left or left to right, but its subjects — men, women and children of many ages, colors and occupations — proceed so slowly that at moments it seems as if they were frozen in time. Mostly, however, the people are moving with dreamy grace, as if performing some visionary choreography — whether charging ahead, looking up at tall buildings or talking and texting on their phones. In one of many highlights, two girls of about 6 and 8 stare back knowingly at the camera and spontaneously segue into hand gestures, like dancers in a rock video. Another magical moment involves a pigeon that flies into view and lands with eagle-like majesty on the sidewalk.
There is a soundtrack, but it’s not street noise: throughout we hear the droning rhythm of a piece composed and performed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a friend of the artist, on a 12-string guitar.
Like “The Clock,” Christian Marclay’s compilation of movie scenes, albeit less lengthy, “Street” has broad appeal. Who doesn’t enjoy people-watching? New Yorkers may especially appreciate recognizing various locations, from Bronx to Brooklyn, that only a local resident would know.
The philosophical implications are worth considering. Mr. Nares, who moved to New York from his native England in 1974, is best known for abstract paintings made by pushing moplike brushes across horizontal canvases. Like “Street,” those works evoke continuous movement in time — flux as the essence of art and life.
On another level, “Street” updates Walt Whitman’s poetic embrace of humanity. The camera gazes at all with the same equanimity and finds each person, in his or her own way, dignified, lovable and even beautiful. Walking, the most democratic form of transportation, lends itself to metaphor: we walk into the future, we walk the line, we walk the walk.
The other works in the exhibition — 77 in all, selected by the artist from the Met’s collection— are in galleries on either side of the video room. Nearly all have to do with outdoor urban theater. But there are plenty of surprises, including modes of animal locomotion, like Howard Edgerton’s short black-and-white film of a hummingbird approaching a blossom. Many are small photographs, although paintings, sculptures and prints are included, too.
It’s a wildly eclectic selection with wonderful historical leaps, depending on how you choose to connect the dots. What a strange trip, for example, from a small green copper priest or demon striding in boots with upturned toes (from Iran or Mesopotamia, from around 3,000 B.C.) to a group of Giacometti’s long-footed, existentially emaciated bronze figures from 1950.
The mood is a bracing mix of downbeat and offbeat. A Garry Winogrand photograph, for example, is not one of his voyeuristic shots of pretty young women on crowded sidewalks, but an image of a less than fashionable woman in an overcoat, standing as if nailed to the spot on a plaza in stark sunlight; it has the foreboding of a de Chirico painting.
The street photography of Walker Evans is included, as you might expect, but it’s a little out of the ordinary. Mr. Nares chose small photographs of four different people shot in Detroit in 1946; with just a little makeup, they could be extras in a zombie movie. There are even curiosities from this photographer’s archives: a glass jar filled with flattened bottle caps and another with can-opening tabs. To picture Evans collecting these things in the street is to see him in a new light.
There are also small gems by Dürer, Goya and Degas. Yet one of the most striking is by a lesser-known, Augustin Théodule Ribot: a group portrait of Breton fishermen and their families from the early 1880s. Painted with a vigorous realism verging on caricature, the folks assembled here gaze out at us with enigmatic dark eyes. Perhaps they’re wondering where we’re all going in such a hurry.
“Street” is on view through May 27 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; metmuseum.org.