Wednesday, 20 April 2011

everything's great when you're downtown

Thursday was one of those secret gifts of a day when the children are at nursery and I don't have a strict deadline, so I get to look at some art without distractions. To be fair, they're fairly accommodating: earlier in the week I dragged them to the Nancy Spero show at the Serpentine: tricky in terms of defining war and existentialism to a child, but a thrilling visual accompaniment to the Tune-Yards songs playing in my head. And last month we had a lot of fun together at the Pioneers of the Downtown Scene in the Barbican, where they took up camp in Gordon Matta-Clark's Open House, which, from their perspective, is like an overgrown and correctly scruffy doll's house, and an excellent venue for hide-and-seek.

One visit to the Downtown Scene isn't enough: not if you're as disorganised as me, and keep arriving just as Trisha Brown's dance piece Floor of the Forest is finishing. The re-created pieces that I have managed to see are quietly incredible: demanding yet playful, cleverly skewing perspectives, making the simplest human movement strange. For Walking on the Walls, the dancers stride along two walls in the gallery, leaping over the corner, carefully negotiating the crossing of paths, their ease and complicity with each other giving the whole thing a wonderful ordinariness, as though it were entirely normal to walk perpendicular to the rest of the world. Planes is even better: three dancers arrange themselves across a vertical board, on which images of New York taken from the air are projected. They look like people falling from a plane in the moments before pulling the parachute chord, suicides in freefall and splayed on the ground, astronauts calmly surveying the madness of earth; more abstractly, they reminded me of the geometric shapes formed in a kaleidoscope as it turns and turns.

What this show gives me most of all is an exhilarating sense of possibility: walking around it, I feel as though I could do anything. I love Laurie Anderson's subtly fierce, retaliatory photographs of men who catcalled her in the street, and the way Trisha Brown made the whole of New York, its streets and rooftops, even the outer walls of vertiginous apartment blocks, her dance floor. I love how they carved a space for themselves in the mire of downtown, how Gordon Matta-Clark made a restaurant which served just one meal at dinners, and photographed graffiti, and used an air rifle to shoot out the windows of a gallery in protest at the dire waste of the city's property. Were time unlimited, I would go to this show once a week, to absorb, to daydream, to refuel.

I did a bit of literal refuelling during the second visit, illicitly nibbling at a slice of cheesecake from a French patissier stationed in the market on nearby Whitecross St. I've become a bit obsessed with cheesecake of late, although this slice, exquisite as it was, reminded me why it's taken me years to overcome a prejudice against the stuff: it was so smooth and cloying, it was almost sickly. Over the past few weeks I've done a bit of experimenting with recipes, and have realised that the more cream cheese it contains, the smoother and more cloying it's going to be. As in so many things, Claudia Roden proves the doyenne of cheesecake: her recipe, in The Book of Jewish Food, is perfect, not least because it contains no cream cheese at all. As I'm constitutionally incapable of following recipes precisely, I tweaked it a bit when I made it, so here's my version. She says it's to serve 10-12, but I'm sure I could eat the whole thing on my own across three or four days if I really set my mind to it.

The perfect cheesecake

For the pastry base: 200g plain flour; 75g sugar; 100g butter, cut into pieces; one egg, lightly beaten. Mix sugar and flour, rub in butter, gently mix in the egg until it comes together in a soft dough. Wrap it and pop it in the fridge for 30 mins. Grease a 26cm springform tin, then line it with the pastry by pressing it in – it won't roll. Bake at 180/gas 4 for 30 minutes then leave to cool.

For the topping: 450g curd cheese; 200ml sour cream; 5 eggs, separated; 175g caster sugar; zest of one lemon; juice of half a lemon; splash of vanilla extract. Beat all the ingredients except the egg whites together until smooth. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the cheese mixture. Pour if over the cold pastry shell and bake at 150/gas 2 for an hour and a half. Leave it to cool in the oven with the door open. It sinks, like a souffle, but has a lovely, light, fluffy texture, and slips down much too easily.