A girl within earshot of me at The Guggenheim on Friday night articulated what a portion of the audience — at least among those not mistaken for drunken, underage Sabrina van der Woodsens — appeared to have been thinking during MGMT’s performance: “This is such a giant scam.” The comment to her friend came towards the end of a 45-minute long set, where, as planned, not a single song of their back catalog was played for $40-a-pop tickets, complete with $25 limited-edition t-shirts selling at a makeshift merch table on the second tier of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed rotunda. A scam? Yeah, ok. Maybe.
Somewhere between the time Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden donned their first bandannas and people scaled the walls of McCarren Park in hopes of catching a glimpse of them play one of the final Pool Parties in 2008, MGMT became regarded as one of Brooklyn’s coolest bands (so much so that they refuse to identify themselves as part of the borough’s music scene). They capitalized on everything that had come to epitomize so-called hipster culture, from their ridiculous neon-hippie dress to their perceived lack of effort, all done up in ironic, irreverent pop packages (see: “Time to Pretend”). In actuality, they’ve been one of Brooklyn’s weirdest. Their last album, Congratulations — that’s the one whose cover is the visage of Sonic the Hedgehog gobbling a cartoon cat on a surfboard — takes the tried-and-true references of Brian Eno, David Bowie and Ray Davies but assembles them in a way so they don’t seem so familiar anymore. Invited by The Guggenheim to create a site-specific response to Maurizio Cattelan’s irreverently culture-referencing exhibition, All, makes perfect sense then. So come Friday night, we have floating popes laid out on stretchers, life-sized ponies, a frazzled-faced Pinocchio, Hitler, a donkey pulling a wagon and 130-some other of Cattelan’s works dangling at various lengths above the stage in one of the most recognized museums in the world. En masse, it looks like a bunch of crap hanging from the ceiling — historic and cultural icons assembled in an unfamiliar way. Individually, each artifact serves as a middle finger to the highbrow art world.
Given MGMT’s background and the creative opportunity at their feet, I expected the show to be weirder. Baffling. Alien orbs and strobe lights. Fluorescent pink. Gluttonous. Visually, what we got was geometric patterns projected onto a screen behind a five-piece band with occasional flashes of light dousing the rotunda in red, purple and teal. And while the domino effect of lights spiraling up Wright’s five rings was pretty damn cool (installed just for the performance, I’m pretty sure), it was about one-tenth of a sensory load than any of MGMT’s music videos. This was soundtracked by mostly fluid intervals of psych-leaning pastiche. There was an old-timey piano waltz and a creeped-out, drone-ridden nursery rhyme marking one of the only sections with vocals. (The only words I could make out the whole time from Andrew were, “My mind if you spread your eyes,” if that helps anything). There were occasionally warped effects to segue one piece into the next: a guy grumbling and whatnot. The best was when they sounded like an ominous, organ-drenched, circa 2012 Animal Collective or when they broke out of the dark to end on what could be described as a Caribbean-Texan jam forged from happy, plodding drums and quivering guitars. When it was time, they put down their instruments and walked off stage like it was no big deal.
In retrospect, the alien orbs and strobe lights wouldn’t have fit Cattelan’s aesthetic. This wasn’t the time to play pretend, per se, and MGMT’s retro-futuristic piecemeal was right on par with the artist’s subversion of the familiar. It’s the band’s seeming lack of exertion, whether it be in interviews with the press (including one on the Guggenheim’s website full of apathetic responses about their plans for the show) or their effortless cool, that’s perplexing and in turn rally accusations of a shtick. Whether its really misunderstood weirdness or blatant aloofness that MGMT’s career is characterized by, when it’s part of an exhibit the Guggenehim calls “most certainly an exercise in disrespect,” we have a flip-flopped reality where leaving the museum thinking you’ve been scammed is a mission accomplished. MGMT knocked it out of the park.