Long before Google street view or the deployment of camera-clad drones to photograph skyscraper vistas, city dwellers gravitated toward a more analog view of the expansive urban landscape: the classic panorama. Coined in the 18th century, the "panorama" denoted a new kind of entertainment depicting cities for an increasingly urban audience eager to understand their new environs. Audience members would buy a ticket and enter into a venue with a circular room painted with a 360-degree view of their own urb, or a distant, exotic metropolis.
Cross-section of London's Leicester Square Panorama theater by Robert Burford. Image via CUNY Baruch College
A view of 19th-century New York, once exhibited at the London Panorama. Image via New York Bound Books
This "cinema-in-the-round" experience created a beguiling illusion of an edgeless cityscape. Such spectacle-driven panoramas, such as the one installed in London's Leicester Square, were perceived as the height of populist Victorian entertainment, standing in contrast to an increasingly non-representational wave of movements in modern art.
A new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art is rescuing the panorama from the historic abyss, and revalorizing its intoxicating technological illusionism with an installation by artist T. J. Wilcox. The entire second floor gallery space of the Marcel Breuer-designed museum is now occupied by In The Air, an 8-foot-tall and 35-feet-in-diameter circular video-screen sculpture.
Three-hundred-sixty-degree views of New York City—as viewed from Wilcox's rooftop Union Square studio—are projected onto both the exterior and interior screens of this massive hanging drum. Employing ten projectors with digital technology that the earlier vaudevillian panoramas lacked, the artist offers a perspective of a pivotal point on the Manhattan grid, offering views on the construction of the Freedom Tower to the south and the iconic Empire State Building to the direct north.
The traditional panorama is imbued with a second layer of artistry by a series of short films that involve narratives from Wilcox's adopted city. There's the story of the artist's landlord's experience on 9/11, as well as a video of Warhol's launch of enormous silver mylar balloons to mark the procession of the Pope past the iconic Factory studio; a sequence of stop motion animation archival footage imagines the Empire State Building's original intention as a sky-high dock for transatlantic Zeppelin passengers.
Andy Warhol's Factory performance
A projected vision of the Empire State Building as a Zeppelin-port
Visitors will also enjoy a film depicting the vernal Manhattanhenge phenomenon, in which the sun sets directly through the East-West canyons of Manhattan's grid. Spanning from the fantastic to the hauntingly real, these scenes mingle with the footage from the artist's studio to create a stunning portrait of a city as the locus of humanity's creative genius.
In The Air's journey through time captures a specific moment of several artists focusing on information and its role in architecture and urbanism: The mix of cinematic mise-en-scène recalls the award-winning The Clock by Christian Marclay, while the use of a circular format echoes Ron Arad's design for a rotund movie screen for projecting art films in the garden of the Isamu Noguchi-designed Israel Museum:
Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited James Nares' video installation Street, which also aimed to offer views of New York that were similarly comprehensive. But instead of taken from a penthouse, Nares' video is very much rooted on the city's sidewalks, where the metropolis' anonymity and frenetic human activity comes into focus through the artist's extremely high-definition camera, usually used to record fast-moving subjects such as speeding bullets or hummingbirds. The artist edited down 16 hours of footage, slowed the movement, and paired it with a twelve-string guitar performance by friend (and Sonic Youth co-founder) Thurston Moore.