Antony Hegarty Gets Synesthetic for Swanlights

Antony Hegarty is one of those artists that America produces but never seems to quite know what to do with. Technically born in England, yes, Hegarty grew up in America, and it’s where his music, under the name Antony and the Johnsons, became more-or-less famous for its ethereal, emotional nature, and the way repeated phrases grow new tendrils of meaning through repetition and Hegarty’s evocative, ghostly, undulating voice. He’s a darling in England, where his 2005 album I Am a Bird Now won the Mercury Prize, a sort of combination Grammy and MacArthur Genius Grant. But, when I told my usually-in-the-know friends I was going to see a one-time-only piece from Antony commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, I got mostly blank stares. Hegarty’s work can be hard to access — it has no hooks, no beats, usually not even a proper chorus or verse. That is not his mission. Instead, he broadcasts directly to a listener’s heart using his powerful, ghostly voice over simple arrangements.

It was fitting, then, that the show (concert? event? installation?) Swanlights mostly featured Hegarty singing alone on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, a tiny figure at first silhouetted behind a screen, then alone under the stage’s impossibly towering curve save for some playful lasers which danced around him and a sort of pixelated paper asteroid which hung over his head and was slowly pulled apart over the course of the show’s two or so hours.

The show also featured stunningly emotive arrangements for a 60-piece orchestra by Nico Muhly, lasers designed by Chris Levine that could expand into vast green and purple clouds or dance like tiny fairies, and the aforementioned asteroid created by Carl Robertshaw, which I am sure served a metaphorical purpose which escapes me. The night took its name and themes of poetic environmental alarm from Hegarty’s most recent album, but it featured songs from all four of his releases. Originally planned to take place in MoMA’s towering atrium, a space which has hosted similar multimedia events from artists like Pipilotti Rist and Marina Abramovic (Doug Aitken’s work was similar in spirit, but also grew beyond the atrium), the addition of the orchestra made it too big – it had to find another home.

Despite moving a few blocks downtown, the work is “in the same vein,” as the above pieces, explained Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large of MoMA and Director of MoMA PS1, and the man who’s been working with Hegarty for three years to make Swanlights a reality. “I am interested in this idea, what you would call in German synästhesie. This idea of the unity of what you see and what you hear and what you experience. So of course, I’m also very interested in Antony.”

If anything involving a two-hour orchestral laser show at one of New York’s most monumental theatres by one of the world’s greatest modern art museums can be said to be odd, then the origins of this project are indeed extremely odd.

“A couple of years ago, I visited an artist upstate, and Antony and I just ended up being the two people who travelled together,” Biesenbach explains. “And while being with this artist upstate — the artist actually was Marina Abramovic — [Antony] found this huge branch of a tree. He took it with him to the city, and I remember how he we got it into the train. Then I saw a little poem he made, and I kind of recognized that tree branch in it, and then I saw that drawing in Swanlights, where there’s a little introduction book. First I see it in a poem, and then I recognize the branch somewhere in a drawing, and in the end it ends up in his music. I think I’m fascinated by this [method of] really looking at the whole world and very holistically making something out of this that is otherworldly, perhaps because that is what he is.”

This movement — tree branch to poem to drawing to song — solidified Biesenbach’s instincts that Hegarty was on the same synesthetic mission as him. Indeed, sitting in the audience of Radio City, with lights changing from tiny pinpricks to vast color fields as Hegarty’s voice seemed to momentarily latch onto and ride the swell of the orchestra before pushing off and soaring above it, it was easy to see that Biesenbach’s instincts were correct.

“I’m intrigued that there is no difference between his opinions, his daily experience, no gap between who he is and what he does,” Biesenbach continues. “So he is really a true artist. Which is pretty fascinating, I think.”

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