Live: MGMT Travel Up The Spiral At The Guggenheim
Thursday, November 10
Better than: A rock show without a reclining Pope sculpture looming above.
During the afterparty for the Guggenheim Museum's annual International Gala Thursday night, held in honor of Maurizio Cattelan and his triumphant retrospective "All," MGMT summoned a drony, hypnotic, and reference-filled examination of the visual artist's career thus far. Walking up the Guggenheim's spiraling ramp and being endlessly taunted by Cattelan's cavorting monstrosities as the band performed new and non-vetted material conjured up a slow-growing feeling of unease that never quite culminated in shock.
Precise strips of colors illuminated Cattelan's works during the performance, resulting in the feeling of being inside a striped circus tent. The music, specifically written by MGMT as a reaction to Cattelan's work, grew at a seemingly irksome pace, just as walking up along the rotunda, and through Catellan's cobwebbed brain, inspired predictions of overstimulation and eventual fatigue. Neither the performance nor the installation made good on those promisesboth instead were set on, and succeed with, pushing the acceptability of how long one simple idea could be developed. Catellan's works, which appear dense and bewildering from below or above, actually come alive up close. Stately glimpses of his often morbid, always shock-conic hyperrealist creations abound as the journey up the ramp continues.
Similarly, MGMT's unbroken 45-minute set was bookended with gradual swells of noise and ambient sounds, thick and disorienting. In between, the band moved through a stream of simplistic ideas, smoothly juxtaposed amongst each other while in transition. There was a hokey yet amusing western elegy section, a surf-jangle movement, and a menacing, downtempo hip hop murder ballad, full of unnerve and sparkling keyboards. The climax arrived about three quarters in, when a momentary lull was followed by loud, psyched-out groans transforming into a powerful, synth-driven steam engine. Just as with Cattelan's work, most of the music's turns seemed to be within the realm of the expected while not seeming like they traveled any designated trajectory.
It helped that both Cattelan and MGMT deal with shock presentations of familiar material. Catellan's sculptures of well-known or notorious figures and iconoclastic images come to life not necessarily through pure imagination; instead, they challenge and incite through bluntly coloring our existing notions of his subjects. MGMT largely avoided their breakout gaudy electropop bangers in favor of a psychedelic hodgepodge of well-traveled ideas and helter-skelter ambitiousness for their second major album Congratulations. They continued that skew at the Guggenheim, although the relative simplicity made it feel more focused and nuanced.
When Animal Collective took part in a similar audio-visual collaboration at the Guggenheim in March 2010, they were even more at the peak of their pop explorations, yet the installation they helped envision was far too sparse and incongruent to fully manifest much of thoughtful coherence. MGMT's set, on the other hand, was close enough to their current motivations to feel like more of a step in some direction, rather than just an artsy diversion to reaffirm a band's core weirdness. Even if lead singer Andrew VanWyngarden admitted in a video interview on the museum's website that the music was most likely a one-time experience and not a predictor of what was next to for the group, maybe MGMT does deserve some of the angsty, self-doubting artist cred they were sadly denied when they rose to such prominence. When in the presence of such an iconic artist as Cattelan, they borrowed all the right moves. And when presented with the opportunity to reinvent who they were, at least for one night, they dutifully strayed outside themselves just enough.
Critical bias: More horrific thought: Figures of dead children dangling from gallows, or well-heeled socialites and scurrilous young professionals pushing personal boundaries by getting their "avant" on with MGMT?
Overheard: "You didn't see Hitler hanging up there in all his glory?" "Nope. I guess I missed a lot."
Random notebook dump: Andrew VanWyngarden's stellar transcendental turtleneck ensemble stole the show. Had he been strung up alongside the dead horses and outstretched Picassos, he could have easily been confused for a minor historical entry in Catellan's pragmatically twisted encyclopedia.