A pianist as powerful and enigmatic as the notes flowing from her instrument, playing in the center of a vast, empty space steadily filling with water sounds like the kind of haunting dream that might prompt William Blake to pick up a paintbrush. Or, if he were living in New York City post–Hurricane Sandy, to take up permanent residence on his psychiatrist’s sofa.
Together, Hélène Grimaud, the musician renowned for the passion and danger she brings to her interpretations, and Turner Prize–winning artist Douglas Gordon will make this uncanny vision a reality in the Park Avenue Armory’s enormous Drill Hall, starting December 9. For “tears become… streams become…” Grimaud will perform a series of works inspired by water as Gordon floods the space around her.
“It’s very orgasmic, the way that she plays, and this is going to give her a toughness,” said Gordon from his studio in Berlin.
Not that Grimaud is short on toughness. Gordon said he once watched the lithesome pianist slip through the fence of a wolf sanctuary that she founded in Westchester, New York, throw back her head, and howl, summoning the pack to her. (Alex Poots, artistic director of the Armory, introduced the two owing to their mutual fascination with the animal: Gordon kept a taxidermied wolf in his studio for years until he impulsively chopped off its head.) “This, for me,” said Gordon, “is what distinguishes Hélène from other musicians: she allows the wildness to come out.”
Grimaud, speaking on the phone from California, said she deliberately avoided pieces that were too “decorative” or “pretty.” Instead, she chose dramatic compositions by Liszt, Ravel, and Debussy that evoke “everything water can inspire, from its destructive aspects to its most mythical qualities, such as redemption.” Adding to the visual intrigue will be Grimaud’s costume, created by French designer agnès b., which Gordon could only describe as “incredibly sexy.”
“If I wore it—and I’m a small, very hairy, bald, multi-tattooed Scotsman—it would look sexy,” he insisted.
Transforming the 35,000-square-foot Drill Hall into a lake, a feat Poots described as “monumental and yet so poetic and intimate,” will require about 150,000 gallons of water. Gordon has been working closely with the Armory’s plumbing expert, who, believe it or not, is named Noah, to make it happen. Although the maximum depth will be only about three inches, lights and mirrors will exaggerate the effect.
The biblical allusions of the rising water are not lost on Gordon, who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in Glasgow, nor is the suggestion of an environmental threat. “People,” he said, “will be frightened.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 51 under the title “After the Flood.”