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Closer to Heaven ? The Angel Project

by Philippa Wehle

If being up high, overlooking the East River or the island of Manhattan, means that you're close to heaven and even closer to the angels, then The Angel Project, an site-specific installation conceived and directed by Deborah Warner and presented by the Lincoln Center Festival 2003, is your cup of tea. For a jaded New Yorker like myself, determined to keep an open mind and see things in a new light, the idea of making a solo journey of discovery seemed appealing, even intriguing. Hovering momentarily over the East River, on the Tramway on the way to Roosevelt Island, gazing down from high on rooftops you could never have imagined were there, or contemplating this vast metropolis from the 63rd floor of the Chrysler Building, had its exciting moments but was it the spiritual journey in search of Paradise Lost that I believe it was supposed to be?

Taking the subway, for example, from Roosevelt Island to 40th Street and Sixth Avenue and again the Shuttle to Grand Central Station, was challenging to someone who gave up on the underground a long time ago. Perhaps this experience was meant to show me what it is like to descend into the lower world, especially at the Roosevelt Island Subway where you walk down endless stairs, deep down to the bowels of the earth before getting on the F train. This could be a journey to Hell, I thought. It was certainly as hot as Hades in the 95 degree temperature throughout the 3 hours I took to complete the journey.

Before hopping on the subway, however, not at all sure I was headed in the right direction, I was escorted to the tip of Roosevelt island via golf cart by a tight-lipped, smiling fellow, closely guarding the secret of what this voyage was going to entail He was not allowed to talk, nor was the fisherman, under the bridge, looking glum no doubt because he had not caught anything. As we passed the ruins of an old abandoned insane asylum, a lone crow perched on its ivy-covered tower, I was filled with curiosity, but not at all sure that this trip was necessary.

Surely the unfriendly lady behind the glass partition at the subway entrance who told me my MetroCard [which I was given as my ticket to the underworld] was damaged, was Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog, guarding the entrance to Hades. I could return it in an envelope and get my $4 back, she shouted, or I could try swiping it quickly three times and see what happens. It worked; apparently I was among the chosen ones allowed into the realm of the dead. But would I be allowed to leave? Orpheus was, but he turned back and his wife Eurydice was turned into a pillar of salt. Would I experience such a fate if I dared to stop my quest in mid-stream?

Near 40th Street and Sixth Avenue, my Angel Project booklet instructed me to ring a bell. Some friendly spirit buzzed me in and I climbed the stairs to the 4th floor, apartment 4 S. I rang. No one answered. I rang again. Still no response. Perhaps in Apt. 3 S I would have better luck since a sign on the front door said if 4 S was busy, try 3 S. Same situation. Finally a creature from my own world, another Angel project voyager, came out of 4 S and said "just walk in." The apartment was empty and quite dirty. Ripped pages from a phone book were strewn across a table and on the floor, names circled in red. A spy glass at the window seemed to beckon me to look out on the passing scene, but it didn't work. Photographs of aerial views of the city, a filthy sleeping bag thrown on the floor, a grimy sofa, everything suggested that some foul play had occurred here. One old roller skate, a tiny red plastic sheep strategically placed on the kitchen counter suggested that a child had lived here as well. A victim of a kidnapping? Curious, I dropped in on 3 S as well. Same layout, but there binoculars at the window allowed me to stare at the building across the way, Milliken & Company. Same single roller skate, similar aerial views of the city along with those suggestive pages torn from the phone book. It felt creepy; I felt like a voyeur. I moved on.

In startling contrast, the next stop was a fancy building with an aluminum awning where I obediently took the elevator to the 27th floor. A huge room, with windows all around, almost bare but for "lawns" of goose down feathers on either side of rows of lockers, was a beautiful sight to behold. A solitary bird cage with two peach colored birds placed in front of a single chair added a pleasant note to this peaceful environment. I sat in the chair and enjoyed listening to the sweet, gentle chirping of the birds, feeling quite calml. Perhaps this is Heaven, I thought. Suspended above the noisy, bustling ferment in the streets below, far from the squalor of apartments 4 S and 3 S, I could contemplate my life, stay for hours if I chose to. Perhaps I might even get in touch with my spiritual self. I tiptoed through the feathers. Not knowing if this was a no no or not, I took my chances. They felt soft, downy, fluffy, something like walking through a cloud.The names on the lockers, were the names of angels, perhaps, Azrael, Nabacyl, Gabriel. Had they been shorn of their feathers and locked in for bad behavior? Looking down at Bryant Park was magical.From my heavenly vantage point I looked out over Bryant Park and was delighted to see a patchwork of large spots of color with small human beings on them. For a moment I could imagine what it might be like to have an outer body experience. When I returned to earth, I visited the park to see what was going on. The bright colored spots were blankets and people were spread out on them waiting to see Planet of the Apes projected on a large screen.The irony of this struck me as I made my way to the next location.

Now it was raining and I had not thought that an umbrella was needed on my spiritual journey. I did not want to be separated from the heavens and in any case I needed to get to the Peep-a-Rama, next to Tad's Steak House, on 42nd Street. Just after watching an artist from England painting a portrait of the naked back side of a luscious looking young woman, in the windows of Chashama, I was suddenly tapped on the shoulder by a young man who asked " Are you with the Angel Project?" Without a beat, I said yes and he handed me an umbrella. Manna from heaven?

In the Peep-a-Rama, bins and bins of discarded Bibles, books entitled God is the Teacher, The Way, Heroes of Heaven, Priest-Workmen, greeted me in a dark room that was more like a sauna than a pleasure parlor. Forbidden fruit? I wondered. Perhaps so to those of us who are not spiritually inclined.

Off to the Times Square Island I went, past the NYPD and the Armed Forces recruiting stations, to the end of this tiny "oasis" in the middle of gaudy Times Square. It was forbidden territory as it turned out. They were filming a commercial at the tip of the island where I was instructed to go and another Cerberus, arms outstretched, announced imperiously that I was not to go any further. Just as imperiously I told him that I was told to go there by The Angel Project and I was going to obey. He dropped his arms in a wink and I, a chosen one, was allowed to filter my way through the cameras and set ups for a car commercial.

At One Times Square, again high up, this time on the 15th floor, there were rooms and rooms with empty desks or discarded computer monitors, the detritus of civilization, and here and there a fallen angel lying on the ground. I opened the door into a room with a tree in the middle. Its green fruit barely beginning to mature did not seem to be tempting Adam and Eve hovering along the wall or at the window. An angel's wing lying on the floor in someone's office offered a moment of reflexion. And finally, a large room, its floor covered with pure white sand in which the "lilies of the field" had been planted was breathtakingly beautiful but I was not going to lured by the sweet, pungent smell of those seductive lilies.

More meaningful to me and indeed the most meaningful experience of the entire journey was the Liberty Theater. Entered into via Applebee's Shopping mall, of all places, this delapadated, musty, abandoned theater, dark but for a ghost light, set me to wondering. What good or bad plays must have been presented here? What actors and actresses achieved fame or experienced misfortune on this shabby stage? When was it closed down? Two Angels of Death [performers perched on the first and second balconies], their black wings fluttering slightly, their faces grim, seemed to be watching over the demise of art. It was hard to leave this bewitching space without some assurance that it would be rescued and restored by a generous Broadway Angel in the near future.

Past McDonald's, onto the deliciously air-cooled Shuttle, through the magnificent Grand Central Terminal and out onto Lexington Avenue to the Chrysler Building and the 63rd floor. My journey was about to end. A smiling gentle man greeted me with a refreshing cup of water. I had arrived in Heaven. And indeed, this might be the only Heaven I will ever know or acknowledge.

Sweeping views of Manhattan from every window, some of them open, allowing a cool breeze to revive me. A fallen angel lying on the floor amidst a number of office cubicles. Celestial music piped through the waste paper baskets or so it seemed. Bibles and copies of Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost placed in neat piles on a table in one of some executive's offices. From one of the windows, I could see Roosevelt Island and the three landmark red and white striped chimneys. I thought to myself, my journey began there on the ground and now I am above it and can see the beginning and experience the end. I stayed a while, watching the sun set in the hazy sky over the rooftops of this magnificent island.

"Angels, it is said, are often unsure whether they pass among the living or the dead," Rilke wrote according to The Angel Project guide book. I am very much alive but I am still not sure that they passed by me. [Wehle]

Copyright © 2003, Metro New Media, Inc.

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