Hudson, NY, USA
Emailed to Andrea Rosen on June 23, 2020:
I have been spending the pandemic in Columbia County, New York, much of that time in the small and historic city of Hudson. Hudson is a veritable museum of American architectural history, especially architecture of the 19th Century, and I thought it was essential that Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner), for its Hudson debut, be installed in a 19th Century setting, preferably one where the public could have the experience of engaging directly with the work.
I spoke with Tambra Dillon, the Executive Director of Hudson Hall, also known as the Hudson Opera House, and I learned that Hudson Hall - a Greek Revival-style temple of culture and learning dating from 1855 - would be re-opening to the public on June 27. Opening hours would be limited: four hours on Fridays, three hours on Saturdays and Sundays, and otherwise closed. And only 10 visitors would be allowed every hour, by reservation only. The rest of the time, the central corridor of Hudson Hall would be visible through glass doors from Hudson’s main commercial street, known as Warren Street, a street whose boutiques, cafes, and antique shops have been transformed by window displays featuring designer masks, “Black Lives Matter” posters, and other markers of this period since COVID-19, PPE and George Floyd entered the global vocabulary.
With the blessing of Hudson Hall, I decided I would install the piece at the far end of this central corridor, on the landing of a set of graceful — if somewhat steep — stairs up which visitors walk to move from the ground floor to the auditorium above.
This second-story auditorium is today the site of theatrical and musical performances, including in 2017 the Virgil Thomson- Gertrude Stein opera The Mother of Us All, about Susan B. Anthony. In the 19th Century, Hudson Hall was the site of art exhibitions by Hudson River School painters such as Sanford Gifford and Frederic Edwin Church, and famed lecturers in the auditorium included Teddy Roosevelt, talking about his adventures in Africa, and Susan B. Anthony (the woman herself, not just her operatic representation).
Because of pandemic precautions, however, visitors during this reopening period would be allowed to go no farther than the landing most of the time. In effect, COVID-19 was turning this landing — normally a place to pause before continuing — into a dead-end. Yet only a temporary one, as befits the global “time out” occasioned by the pandemic.
I ordered fortune cookies online in two batches of 400. The first batch, flavored with citrus and branded as “Golden Bowl” fortune cookies, arrived right away. The second batch, flavored with the more usual vanilla and branded only as “Fortune Cookies,” took many days to arrive. This necessitated installing the work in two tranches, since we wanted to have the installation in place - and properly lit, for nighttime viewing through the glass doors of Hudson Hall - at least a week before the June 27 reopening of Hudson Hall. Given the curtailed opening hours, the hourly visiting limits, and a July 5 closing date, it seemed unlikely that the public would take away anything like all 800 cookies. But no matter. This is a large space, and 800 cookies — especially if their number would be diminishing — seemed about right to provide a distinct visual presence.
As we installed the piece, several things became evident. First, it would be necessary to have a “flow” - up the stairs on the right side, down the stairs on the left side. Visitors would have to remain physically distanced, so the walk up the stairs to the pile would be in solitude. I immediately recognized an implicitly sacral quality to this experience, like the experience of approaching the priest at a Roman Catholic mass, receiving communion, and walking away from the priest with your back to him. This solemnity, I realized, should make the experience an opportunity for reflection, just as the mass is. The wooden cross visible through the large window above the landing — a utility pole, but a wooden cross nonetheless — was a touch of serendipity (good fortune to accompany the fortune cookies?) that seemed to confirm the aptness of seeing the experience in near-religious terms. So, too, was the discovery that at 2:30 p.m. every day the sun shone through that window, directly onto the sparkling pile of cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies.
Yet the experience would be an inversion of the mass in any number of ways. There would be no priest and no wine. There would be no one saying “The body of Christ” and no one saying “Amen.” Instead of waiting for a bedecked and bedizened priest to place the wafer in the mouth or hand of the congregants, the “congregants” would have to perform this task for themselves - or choose not to. Indeed, the “congregants” might decide to snap photos and post them on social media. The “congregants” might turn around and pose for a photograph taken by a friend standing below. This is hardly the stuff of religious solemnity. The fortune cookie itself might be seen as no more than a popular superstition, just as, for some, the Eucharist is.
The experience, in short, could be pretty darn serious (a dignified journey up a grand staircase to visit the altar of art) or kind of fun (an exuberant gallop up some creaky old stairs to pick up ... a fortune cookie... and take a picture). I could see that this work of art — experienced in this setting and in this moment in time — could be both at the same time. We could approach the work with reverence and with a smile, sorry for what we have lost and astonished by what we yet have, respectful of the role of fortune in the lives of us all and resistant to any notion of fate or doom, regretful about the wrongs we have abided and enthusiastic, nonetheless, about what the future, clasped in our hands, might be.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this exhibition."