Matt Keegan: what was & what is
Long Island City’s Court Square Park
May 12–Aug 18, 2019
Thu, May 23, 2019
For over a decade, Matt Keegan has worked to synthesize his interest in language, whether rooted in pedagogy and cognition or the vernacular and social. Relatedly, Keegan often incorporates familial narratives into his work to better understand how recorded histories are made up of individual perspectives. He works in sculpture, photography, and video, and for his SculptureCenter commission he integrates these various ways of working. Installed in Long Island City’s Court Square Park, what was & what is distills real estate development’s rhetorical and visual devices in an object that speaks the language of urban development while prompting opportunity for reflection on the fastest-growing neighborhood in New York City.
what was & what is is an 8-foot-tall rectangular perimeter, a nearly empty room of about 180 square feet, built on top of a preexisting but vacant concrete pad. One opportune foundation in a vast zone of development opportunity, the site positions the work at the feet of brand new residential buildings. Like its neighbors, Keegan’s work is constructed mostly in transparent panes, a model home approaching 1:1 scale.
On three sides, the phrase “For a long time this neighborhood was about what will be, and now I think it’s about what is.” traces the upper edges of the sculpture. The quotation is pulled from a developer’s comment in a 2017 New York Times article titled “Long Island City Grows Ever Skyward.” Expressing the apotheosis of longtime speculative interest in Long Island City, it takes stock of the present with a puzzling formulation of self-reflection. If Long Island City is now “about what is,” then what is it about? Has “what will be” turned out to be “what is”? What was the present like when it was ostensibly about the future?
Trimming the transparent box, which stands like a fragment of a high rise or a building raised to hold its own air rights, the phrase begs the question of whose timeline and whose sense of anticipation guides narratives of a neighborhood’s arrival. To this end, the sculpture’s back wall is made of mirrored glass, a surface capturing a constant stream of traffic and passersby inside. Visible by approaching the sculpture and peering down through its clear walls, its interior floor shows an enlarged dollhouse view of an empty one-bedroom rental apartment in the Hayden, a building across Jackson Avenue (available for $3,500 – $3,700 per month). The residential tower is named for Levy Hayden, a railroad superintendent credited with naming Long Island City in the 1850s. Within Keegan’s work, reflections of people rushing home or peering into a luxury unit suggest a momentary leveling of human and city scales, opening a space for personal reconciliation with the forms and relations to power that we are led to believe carry positive social and cultural values.
As a foil to the seeming facelessness of speculation and urban construction, over the course of the summer, Keegan is joined three times by his father, a lifelong New Yorker, to talk about brushes with power, personal experiences of urban development, and feelings of proximity and distance from the continual transformation of living and working space in New York. Topics of conversation will range from Mr. Keegan’s childhood job at a private golf course in Queens that was frequented and later shuttered by Robert Moses, to his reading of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker years later, to his previous ownership of a bar-restaurant near the Vernon Boulevard—Jackson Avenue 7 train in Long Island City in the late 1980s. His personal accounts reflect accumulated experience, awareness, realization, and shifting self-image, and the ways in which the perpetual, personal present is tugged through the forces and conditions of “what will be.”