As the lights throughout the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda dimmed for the fourth time one recent weekday evening, a hushed stillness fell across the crowd of more than 500. Three opening acts had warmed them up, and now the moment they had been waiting for had finally come. The silence lasted for only a few seconds, and then applause and cheering erupted throughout the space. Led by two roadies, the British rock trio The xx quickly took the stage, tuned their instruments, and launched into “Angels,” which begins with guitarist Romy Madley Croft singing: “Light reflects from your shadow / It is more than I thought could exist / You move through the room.”
Those lyrics seemed to describe Otto Piene’s inflatable sculpture White Balloon (2014), which loomed overhead, hung from the ceiling as part of the museum’s current “Zero” exhibition and as the centerpiece for the Guggenheim’s 10th annual International Gala, a two-day affair, that the band’s performance kicked off.
Before The xx took the circular, white stage, projections of hand-painted slides from Piene’s 1966–67 series “Proliferation of the Sun” illuminated the balloon—the petal-like shapes producing a delicate, almost diaphanous effect. It was not as immersive as the work’s original presentation, in which viewers lay in a room completely engulfed in lights and projections, but it was an intriguing complement to the the band’s hushed songs.
The next day I sat down with Madley Croft, who was dressed in the band’s usual all-black garb, in a white-walled, makeshift lounge constructed in what is normally home to the Guggenheim’s Thannhauser Collection, to discuss the unusual performance.
“You don’t initially think, ‘Yeah of course, I’ll play a gig here,’ ” she said in a soft voice as she repositioned herself on a black Barcelona chair. “When we found out that was an option, it kind of was a dream come true. I hadn’t even thought it was a possibility of being a dream.”
Madley Croft has been involved in art since her childhood. She grew up in a house in London lined with her art-teacher mother and librarian father’s art books. “I was always a very quiet kid and into art and things like that,” she said. (She’s a regular visitor to the Guggenheim when she’s in town.)
Even now she’s remained very hands-on in the creation of the band’s album artwork and merchandise. “For me, it’s always gone hand in hand,” she said. “I always loved picking up the CD or the vinyl and really studying it, reading the lyrics, and looking at the artwork and the photos.”
The xx performed ten songs from their first two albums at the Guggenheim, as well as a new song that might make an appearance on their upcoming third album. Playing at the center of the room, Madley Croft said she felt an intimacy with the substantial crowd that was similar to the band’s 25-gig run at New York’s Park Avenue Armory earlier this year, which had audiences capped at 45 people.
That Armory show suggested an almost performance-art bent to their work, placing them in the line of musicians who have been embraced as contemporary artists—like Kraftwerk and Antony and the Johnsons, who have previously collaborated with MoMA on projects. (Noreen Ahmad, the YCC co-chair for the pre-gala, even referred to The xx as the “art world’s darling” at the moment.)
The next is a series of music-related museum ventures is Björk, who will have a MoMA retrospective next March. Madley Croft is a fan, and initially resisted a direct comparison to the Icelandic singer, but then relented. “I think perhaps that’s a comparison you could make,” she said. “She likes to push thinks forward, and that’s something that we love to do as well.”
Still, Madley Croft wouldn’t say that the band considers what it’s doing to be full-on performance art except, perhaps, “unintentionally.”
“We have done these things that are more crossing over into the art world. We didn’t really seek it out,” she said. “We found ourselves here by mistake, and it’s kind of like a happy accident.”
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ALL SLIDESHOW PHOTOS: ©2014 CLAIRE VOON