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High-wire act to tout art exhibit ; Skywalk envisioned atop Liberty Building

In downtown Buffalo, where the skyline has held its shape for more than 30 years, visitors usually keep their eyes trained at ground level.

But on a Thursday in September, anyone within viewing distance will have a good reason to look up.

On Sept. 23, French performance artist Didier Pasquette plans to attempt a tightrope walk across a steel cable strung between the two towers of the 23-story Liberty Building.

The spectacle, which still depends on final approval from the building's owner, was conceived as a breathtaking launch for the exhibition "Beyond/In Western New York," a months-long showcase of art by more than 100 regional and internationally known artists at more than a dozen venues in Western New York.

John Massier, project director for the exhibition and a curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, described Pasquette's walk as a symbolic act designed to draw a broad audience to the exhibition while aspiring to the highest artistic standards.

"It's a metaphorical, figurative act," Massier said. "It's very much about inhabiting the moment. To me, this is what the wire walker exemplifies. It's the great impulse of all artists to fully inhabit the moment so acutely that you can do something that magnificent, that you can do something that sublime."

During a recent visit to Buffalo to scout possible locations, Massier noted, Pasquette stressed that he was not a stunt man out to break any world records. He wanted, as Massier recalled, simply to "draw a line in space and walk on that line."

Pasquette's tightrope walk fits the theme for the ambitious exhibition, said Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Louis Grachos, one of the event's organizers. The show is subtitled "Alternating Currents," a reference to Buffalo's ties to the birth of cheap electricity, its often conflicted citizenry and its geographical location at the confluence of so many waterways.

"If you think about 'Alternating Currents' and you think about drawing a line in the skyline and walking it, there's some poetry there," Grachos said. "Not to mention the poetry of a French artist walking between the two Statues of Liberty."

Grachos said event organizers are finalizing liability insurance for the event but are confident that Pasquette's walk will take place. In addition to the Liberty Building, the French funambulist also scouted locations for high-wire walks in Niagara Falls and in Buffalo's Olmsted Park system.

Pasquette studied with renowned tightrope walker Philippe Petit, whose 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers has lately become the subject of renewed fascination. He has performed high-wire walks in London, Paris and Copenhagen as well as with Cirque du Soleil and with his own company, Altitude, based in Le Mans, France.

This year's incarnation of the ambitious exhibition, launched in 2005 as an outgrowth of the long-standing "In Western New York" regional art show and repeated with an expanded footprint in 2007, will feature work by nine international artists in addition to Pasquette. Some of that work, Grachos said, will remain on view indefinitely.

Other nonregional artists scheduled to produce work for the show include Korean-born sculptor Do Ho Suh and British-born environmental artist and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Both will install sculptures on the grounds of the Albright-Knox. The Canadian art collective Fastwurms will produce a large owl sculpture, likely to be placed atop the historic art deco building that houses First Niagara Bank at Main Street and Jewett Parkway.

The Brooklyn-based duo of Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry are creating paintings for the exhibition based on images from Western New York media archives, including those of The Buffalo News and the defunct Courier-Express, that explore Tarry's formative years in Buffalo.

Outside Babeville on Delaware Avenue, which houses Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Canadian sculptor Kim Adams will create what he calls an "auto-lamp," a car drilled full of holes, more or less blinged-out and finally illuminated from within to create a dazzling light sculpture.

New York City-based artist Lorraine O'Grady is creating a performance work focused on the border between the United States and Canada. Husband-and-wife team Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood will create "The Confectionary Wonders of Buffalo," an exhibition that explores Buffalo's architecture through its neighborhood bakeries. Liz Phillips will re-create a sound sculpture -- described as "a sonic portrait of the Niagara River" that she originally produced for Artpark in 1974.

"Beyond/In Western New York" organizers stressed that the exhibition will remain resolutely focused on the work of regional artists.

The footprint of the exhibition has expanded incrementally since its inception, growing beyond the eight counties of Western New York to include cities such as Rochester, Syracuse, Cleveland and Toronto. The show will occupy both traditional art galleries and extend into such non-art spaces as the Hi-Temp Fabrication building on Perry Street and newer venues like the Western New York Book Arts Center.

"There was also a concerted effort to bring in performance, to address some site-specific opportunities and allow for artists to select some specific venues," Grachos said.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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