Ending Room

Arden Shostak
BFA SC 2022

Marlene Cross’s Ending Room, currently on view at the New York Center for Contemporary Thought (NYCCT) until June 1, has garnered international attention and sparked widespread controversy. From the outside, the installation appears as a mammoth aluminum sculpture, towering twenty feet high in some places and evoking the severe grandeur of works by Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor. Its form is fluid and geographical, undulating with the rhythm of a mountain range or seascape. The mirrored finish ferries the work in and out of reality, distorting its surroundings and reinforcing its precarious position in the space between the material and the unknown. On one side of the sculpture is a yawning entrance, which inexplicably descends into darkness about a foot into the interior. Viewers are able to purchase timed tickets to see the work, and are only allowed entry one person at a time. At the time of this publication, no one who has entered Ending Room has exited the installation.

This week, I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Marlene Cross about her latest work. When Cross invited me to her studio, my mind ran wild with possibilities. I imagined the mythologized artist in a chic minimalist warehouse space, surrounded by mysterious material studies and copies of the most erudite journals. But when I stepped into her studio, I found it to be startlingly down-to-earth. With notes tacked up on the wall, scattered drawings on the floor, and half-alive houseplants, it could’ve been the studio of any working contemporary artist.

AS: Your work, even before Ending Room, is famously existentialist. You’ve written before about mortality as well—your 2011 book Body Choir took a scalpel to the human condition. Can you tell me about how your latest work follows these lines of inquiry?

Cross: Sometimes I honestly feel like Ending Room is the natural conclusion to everything I’ve been working through. But I suppose artists often feel that way about their latest piece—it's the best possible answer you’ve come up with to the big questions that you carry with you. And then after you've made the piece, you sit in that stillness for a while before the itch comes back and you realize, oh, I haven’t really figured it out at all. I’m in that stillness right now—we’ll just have to wait and see how long it lasts.

She looks down, picks stray pieces of lint from her linen pants.

And yes, Body Choir was a bit of a turning point for me. I needed to depart from sculpture and installation for a while and just write in order to understand why so much of my language has to be visual and embodied, rooted in material. That’s how I ended up returning to the human body as the site of all beginnings and endings. My work since then has been much more experiential—I make things that my viewers can touch, or participate in, or enter. That book definitely planted the seed for Ending Room.

The installation took six years from proposal to completion. Can you walk me through your process of designing, fabricating, and installing this ambitious work?

Cross: As much as I am proud of Ending Room and believe in its necessity as a public exhibition, it was truly a nightmare to bring into existence. The idea for it came easily, all at once in a single moment. The hard parts were logistical: figuring out how to actually get it to be what I needed it to be was nearly impossible, and I’m forever indebted to the brilliant scientists, philosophers, and architects whose expertise and discretion were essential to this project’s success. I also am very grateful to the NYCCT for having such an open mind and seeing the possibility in my unusual proposal. Although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, and had some disagreements in terms of site, liability, and marketing, I believe their perspective and support as an institution made Ending Room a much more realized and complete endeavor. I’m afraid if I elaborated any more on its actual construction, I'd jeopardize the mystery of the piece.

AS: Viewers reserve tickets to view your installation months in advance. It is the most talked and written-about artwork of the year so far. By all accounts, it’s wildly popular, yet it has come under fire due to its impact on its viewers. How do you respond to allegations that the work is dangerous, or unethical? Cross: Personally, I don’t believe that artwork has a responsibility to be ethical. Frankly, I don’t think people do either. Nature is not ethical. I hold art to the same standard that I hold dreams; dreams are not expected to be ethical, or useful, or sensible. They simply are what they are. Also, I tend to dismiss reviews of Ending Room, good or bad. If someone is able to write about my piece, well, I can assume they haven't actually seen it. So how could I take a review like that seriously?

AS: Why do you think it is simultaneously so popular and harshly criticized?

This question animates her, and she leans forward over crossed arms as she replies.

Cross: I think that it is popular and harshly criticized for precisely the same reasons. People are obsessed with things they can’t fully grasp in the jaws of logic and reason; things like birth, death, dreams, the grand mysteries of science and theology and life. And this obsession simultaneously draws people in towards the unknown and repels them from it. Human beings are excruciatingly aware of their own mortality, yet completely incapable of handling that information. It’s such a loss! Fear and ego get in the way and crush this uniquely human knowledge into the smallest and darkest corners of the spirit. This tension is what Ending Room sets out to address. What it has wound up producing is this strange self-referential dialogue that circulates around it in the world of media, art journalism, and academia. Ending Room doesn’t just answer to ideas about metaphysical conditions, but generates them.

AS: I’d also like to talk about your contract—in a feat of legal acrobatics, you have developed a hold-harmless agreement that extends not only to the person who signs it, but to their friends, family, employer, and country. Each viewer signs this agreement before entering the piece. Once signed, the property rights of the contract itself are transferred to you, which you then edition as art objects and put up to auction. Since the installation of Ending Room, you have dealt with an onslaught of legal battles from distraught loved ones. How has this affected your life and practice?

Cross: It has affected me very little, hardly at all. The agreement is airtight, and the cases are always dismissed. But yes, treating the contracts as art objects has been very divisive. Some people say it’s in terrible taste, while others think that it’s an excellent critique of the art object in a late capitalist market, or just a very good joke. I don’t feel the need to say who I think is right or wrong about it—the contracts are simply my artworks, and I think from a legal, creative, and economic standpoint, they are effective as they are.

I would also like to say that from the very beginning, before Ending Room was even open to the public, I was entirely straightforward with my viewers about what the piece was going to be. You go in, you don’t come out. You see what comes at the end. People want to know, and I think they deserve to know. I don’t let the media and legal trouble shake my conviction about this. My viewers have the right to choose for themselves, and if they want to go inside, it’s not my place nor anyone else’s to dissuade them. All I did was open a door—they walk through on their own.

AS: This brings me to the final question: what is inside of Ending Room?

Cross laughs and shakes her head. Then she fixes her gaze on mine.

Everyone asks that. That’s what the whole piece is about. You don’t need to ask me. Do you really want to know?

She stands up from her chair, walks over to her desk, and pulls a slip of paper out of a drawer.

Cross: Here’s a ticket. On me.

Arden Shostak is a florist and sculpture student on hiatus. He spends half his time dreaming and the other half remembering his dreams.