Wu Tsang: Anthem
On ViewSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum
July 23 – September 6, 2021
Innovation appears every once in a while. When it does, an encounter occasionally brings a full on coup de foudre. Wu Tsang’s site-specific “sonic sculptural space” Anthem (2021) did this in spades for me, and is the not to be missed sensorial experience at the Guggenheim Museum on view through September 6. Anthem is visual artist-filmmaker Wu Tsang’s collaboration with the composer, singer, and transgender activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, who is portrayed in a commanding, vertical video projected onto an 84-foot diaphanous curtain that cascades down from the rotunda ceiling and into the Guggenheim’s atrium floor. Glenn-Copeland’s stately figure is coupled with his mellifluous vocal improvisation, his singing of original a cappella melodies, as well as a rendition of the spiritual “Deep River.” His voice joins with his playing a piano (viewed from above as his fingers stroke the keyboard) and thumping a pair of small drums, and with the plaintive sounds of a cello, in a beautifully arranged soundscape that permeates the building. The aural composition emanates from state-of-the-art speakers strategically placed along the museum’s spiraling ramp and around the atrium below. As a kind of call and response, the sound score operates in tandem with Glenn-Copeland’s compassionate face and relaxed stature, visible on one or the other side of the soaring curtain.
Anthem is a finely tuned audiovisual environment, in which the visual and the aural share equal weight. The work’s preeminence is the result of extraordinary technical collaboration. Working together with the musician Kelsey Lu and the DJ, producer, and composer Asma Maroof, Wu Tsang developed the arrangement of sounds as a series of improvisatory responses inspired by the warm acuity of Glenn-Copeland’s voice. Hats are off to the team of AV and sound engineers, preparators, and curators who managed to pull off something so remarkably gratifying during and for these unusual times. Attention to details was everything, and the team at the Guggenheim got it right.
Ever since the ’60s, installation has been an elusively intangible, significant contemporary art form. The viewer is invited to enter what is, in effect, a stage to move about in the manner of the performer, in order to engage with and discover an installation’s nuances. Here, Frank Lloyd Wright’s monumental building is vividly transformed into an almost sacred space, where familiar alcoves disappear behind gossamer curtains, and exhibition walls fade away in muted lighting. The visitor is made to feel comfortable as the actuator of the ethereal space. After an interaction with Anthem, visitors have gained lasting memories, which live on as recall in the mind’s eyes and ears. In a day and age when technology is as ubiquitous as water, the meaningful connection with Anthem is savored.
An added bonus awaits Guggenheim Museum visitors in the second-floor alcove. The elegantly presented video projection of a tender conversation between Beverly Glenn-Copeland and his wife, the theater artist and story-teller Elizabeth Glenn-Copeland, was captured by Wu Tsang, as a hybrid of narrative and documentary. Again, the Guggenheim staff paid considerable attention to every detail of the video’s presentation in order to make image, sound, and seating just right.
Curator X Zhu-Nowell and artists Wu Tsang and Beverly Glenn-Copeland present viewers with an inspiring gift, which came about due to the changes wrought by the recent lockdown. This prompted the Guggenheim Museum to devote its main building entirely to a single video-sound work specifically commissioned for this moment. It is worth a visit in order to have memories of Anthem in one’s mind’s eye.