Call Me Leamhsi: Bill Shannon circumnavigates the Financial District

Bill Shannon and "Rejected Skin" at 77 Water St. photo by Catherine Peila

Bill Shannon has gone ¾ of the way around the tip of Manhattan, retracing in retrograde the route famously described by the narrator Ishmael in the opening paragraphs of Moby-Dick.  And, like his fellow traveler, he pauses to wax philosophical.

Shannon perches on his crutches atop the white painted concrete platform that frames Rudolph de Harak and William Tarr’s public sculpture Rejected Skin, (1969) beneath one cantilevered corner of 77 Water St. at Old Slip.  He begins a slow descent to an almost prone suspension.  Having rested a found (presented by a construction worker, actually) gallon bottle of commercial iced tea on part of the artwork, he twirls and flashes first one specially made round-ended crutch then the other as he embodies the tension between flesh and rigid exoskeletar form at the heart of his unique dancing technique.  The entire time he suspends and descends, he continues to discuss the challenges inherent in matching mind and muscle to metal and gravity and the constant risk in his exploration of new form and expression.

“Sometimes,” he says, his nose finally flush with the pavement, “it can look like failure.”

Bill Shannon caught in a "wall stall." photo by BC

And suddenly, the 40 minutes we have spent following Shannon through Traffic –
A Transient Specific Performance
, suggest a larger simulacrum for human endeavor. Think Mideast peace, perhaps, or the Obama presidency.

Episodically, mesmericly, our Pequod of a chartered bus has been trying to keep up with his skiff of a skateboard as the tiny crutch powered craft buffets the tempests of rush hour traffic, and waves of tourist and commuter crowds down Broadway from Dance New Amsterdam, at Chambers,  to the edge of the Battery, and back north along Water.  The mother ship carries its captive audience in its hold, along with all necessary equipment and expertise — a DJ, a VJ and two videographers — to render the quarry. We can hear the music being pumped into Shannon’s radio headset, which, equipped with a microphone, intermittently feeds back to us his voice and the sound of his wheels. Those outside the bus can hear only the latter.

This extends to skateboarder Mike Wright, an old friend of Shannon’s, who has happened into the mix near the beginning of the performance. Signing on for the rest of the journey, he becomes the Queequeg/Daggoo of the piece, participating in encounters with passersby, cops and construction workers.  Such happenstances, but perhaps without Wright,  promise to mark each of the remaining performances, which continue each afternoon through Friday, June 4, beginning at 4:30 pm.

“How do you make the [members of an] audience feel like they are on a skateboard?”  the event’s press release asks.

I don’t know about others, but Shannon’s fluid meanderings through these madding crowds took me back to my high school days.  Whenever bored of a winter’s class, I would escape to the frozen puddle that covered much of the school’s roof, don my hockey skates, and glide above the unsuspecting heads of my classmates.

Watching Shannon now, I become acutely aware of the three-dimensionality of his art, space opening and closing across the “blab of the pave,” mind calculating with intuitive speed the warping of space time all around its body.  Pausing abreast of a curbside advertisement, he suspends almost horizontally on his crutches in one of his signature “wall stalls,” creating a flesh and blood bas relief against the commercial grain.

Shannon scouts the route of "Traffic" by winter light

Three years in the making, Traffic’s metaphorically rich, imaginatively provocative and downright audacious adventurousness augurs well for the revitalizing Artist in Residence Program at DNA.  Not to be missed, the 20 accompanying videos by the same artist that play along DNA’s gallery walls add another dimension to Shannon’s chess game with the laws of physics and those of Downtown Manhattan traffic.

In the clip playing out into Chambers St. adjacent to DNA’s entrance east of Broadway, the artist appears in jacket, tie and jaunty hat traversing the plazas around Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.  In dress, manner and movement he recalls, in his own unique style, the pizzaz and allure of another Pittsburgh native, the late Gene Kelly.  Such talents do not mark all generations. When such a one, at the peak of his powers, wheels before you, you owe it to yourself and your children to catch him if you can.

More of DJ McDonald’s commentary can be found at City of Glass.

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