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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Touring an Underground Art Gallery

When we are out for a walk on the weekend and see a real estate agent's open house sign, my family sometimes likes to be a bit nosy and explore the interior spaces of our neighborhood. I also like to hear how our community is being described to our new neighbors. When the real estate agents ask the standard question about how long we've been looking, we generally embellish a little and say we have friends who may be interested in buying a home in our neighborhood. It's only a partial exaggeration, and other than a little disappointment that we're not going to be their next sale, there's no harm. If it's a slow day, sometimes they're glad to have some company.

On a recent weekend, we walked up to see an apartment in a cooperative next to the neighborhood park, where we know a family. The apartment had some nice views of the park, but was otherwise rather unremarkable. The real estate agent was polite and professional, but had little of interest to say about the neighborhood. I wanted to go down to visit the basement, though. We had never been downstairs, but one of our elected officials has mentioned more than once that he enjoyed door knocking in the co-op because the buildings are connected through the basement, allowing him to go from one to the next once inside.

Once down in the basement, we were pleasantly surprised by a gallery of discarded artwork and a communal library. Pieces of artwork created a juxtaposition with the rough, utilitarian materials of the basement walls. At the same time, the prints and paintings mostly appeared worn, sometimes slightly damaged, complementing the roughness of their setting. There are other buildings in the area with basements decorated by their supers, yet this one stands out because of its larger size, which makes it more like a gallery instead of a crowded, kitschy nook.

The basement also housed the communal library, where residents left their old books and could rummage for anything of interest left by others. Unlike the typical stray bookshelf, this had the appearance of a small library. Arranged on attractive, mismatched bookshelves well proportioned for the space, and set next to a giant bank of electrical meters, it made the improbable impressive.
It is interesting how impressions and perspectives can vary. When we talked with our friends who live in the building, this gallery is mostly something they take for granted. They pass through it all the time and don't give it much thought, although there seemed to be a sense of attachment once we started talking about it.

Some other friends of ours had looked at an apartment for sale in the building when they were looking for their home, and their view was less positive. When they visited this same basement, they found the experience creepy. The sense that a taboo space was inhabited was disconcerting to them. It felt like discarded objects had taken on their own phantom life in the shadows below their prospective home. As a first reaction, they felt uncomfortable with the idea of sending their daughter down there to get the laundry.

To me, this was an excellent use of leftover nooks and discarded decorations, cultivating communal life in the low-traffic spaces that are generally neglected. The thoroughly mundane pieces of art assembled underground had been transformed into underground art.

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