A shallow lake in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory transforms the floor into a cavernous pit, a pristine mirror image of the great steel awning above it. At one of the two grand pianos standing in the field of water, a woman readies herself for a recital of classical pieces inspired by water. The lights dim, ripples form in the liquid, and the piano begins to glow from within. This is tears become …streams become… an installation by Turner-Prize winning artist Douglas Gordon that features ten nights of performances by renowned pianist Hélène Grimaud.
“I wanted everyone to look down,” says Gordon at the press preview. “To see the bare bones of the building and feel like you could fall into it, although it’s only two inches of water. It starts to get deeper and deeper.” The collaboration, which took two years to coordinate and execute, grew out of Gordon’s fascination with water as a medium, and his interest in extracting the internal and introspective experience of music into the physical world, and anchors the Armory’s 2014 season. Explains Gordon, the piece was inspired by the idea of “illuminating through darkness.”
In order to "flood the Armory," the floor had to be made perfectly level with panels that couldn't float or leak, according to The New York Times. In addition, the engineers had to rid the environment of humidity, a known piano-killer. To level the floor, they created a sandwich of plastic sheet, particulate board, and pool liner, and arranged it onto 7,000 concrete blocks shaved precisely with lasers. Then, they eliminated humidity by keeping the water at a temperature 50 to 55 degrees, while surrounded by air of 70 to 76 degrees.
Explains Grimaud, “My contribution is to make time stop or alter a sense of time. It’s only possible for a fraction of a second at a time. There’s no recipe.” The pianist, who’s performed in venues from Paris, France to Tokyo, Japan, had never seen a venue like the one designed by Gordon. Drawn to the idea and its inherent riskiness, she believed that in knitting together the worlds of monumental immersive environments and music, the “emotional journey could be magnified in an exponential way.”
Grimaud describes music and sound as a visceral experience that the skin receives, the embodiment of a French idiom known as “à fleur de peau.” Gordon adds that music can be considered visual: “What happens when you close your eyes [when listening]? I’m very curious about that.” Responds Grimaud, “Your vision turns towards the inside. It helps you to internalize everything.” Their hope is that viewers see the immensity and depth of the installation as a reflection of their auditory experiences.
Alex Poots, artistic director of the Armory, assures that for a collaboration of this scale to happen, the artists have to engage with respect and generosity towards one another, giving each the space to create. “Most artists find that tough,” he says. But for the creation of tears become…streams become… Grimaud and Gordon were a dream team: “Their remarkable partnership was born out of the confidence they both had in each other," says Pook.
Opening to the public tonight at 7:00pm, the installation will be on view through January 4, 2015, with a player piano filling in for Grimaud during the day. Grimaud will do ten live “concerts” this month, performing a program of water-themed works by Debussy, Ravel, Liszt and more. Tickets are available now at Park Avenue Armory.