UPDATE: Goldberg’s exhibit Stories the City Tells Itself at the Museum of the City of New York has been extended through July 4, 2012.
Multimedia artist Neil Goldberg grew up on Long Island, and his childhood was full of trips into New York City, a place that he says always seemed glamorous for being just out of reach. There was a certain part in the drive, on the way through the borough of Queens, when the car would pass the massive apartment complexes known as LeFrak City. “I just thought about all those windows and how behind each of them lives were being lived,” says Goldberg. “You couldn’t see into them but it was thrilling to think of them as this big, dense collective of lives.”
Goldberg’s continued affinity for the collection of lives that is New York City is on view in his solo exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, which has recently been extended to run through June 19. The show contains a dozen different projects plucked from two decades of his work for their focus on the city.
But Goldberg says that the city is not so much subject as catalyst for his work. “I’m deeply fascinated and engrossed with New York but really all the projects in the show are really just about being alive in a body,” he says. “New York has all these amazingly specific qualities that I love, but in the end it’s a huge, idiosyncratic public space and it’s a place to watch people being alive. That’s the thing that I’m mostly interested in: the basic mystery of ‘here we are, alive in these bodies, at this point in time.’”
The mundane moments he captures, such as the boarding of a bus, are overlooked by the people involved. And there is often, the photographer finds, an instant of rich emotion beneath the banality of it all. “There’s nothing more mundane than missing the subway, but the way it’s experienced has a more operatic quality than what’s actually happening,” he says. “Which is that you’re going to have to wait another five minutes.” His choice of video versus still photography depends on whether that emotion is best emphasized inside or outside of time. The faces of people who miss the train, he says, are best examined freed from the rest of the bustle of the station; the moment of orientation when one emerges from the subway, on the other hand, needs to be conveyed as a transition from confusion to clarity.
The exhibit involves both formats, still and moving, installed in a way meant to echo the city: viewers can choose what to focus on but can’t prevent the rest of the world (the sounds and sights of nearby videos, not presented in isolation as is typical in a museum setting) from seeping in around the edges.
Goldberg says that the show’s title—Stories the City Tells Itself—is a reference to a story he in turn tells himself. In that fiction, the city, like the photographer, is observing its residents being alive. “I like to think of the moments as being overlooked by the people involved but existing for the pleasure of the city itself,” he says. “Maybe no one is noticing these people as the emerge from the subway or the little trapezoids of beautiful sky, but somehow the city itself is watching.”